Boston Review
table of contents
new democracy forum
new fiction forum
rave reviews
writers’ guidelines
bookstore locator
literary links


Search this site or the web Powered by FreeFind

Site Web



Junot Diaz
Riverhead Books, $21.95

by Eli Gottlieb

If it is true, as is often said, that cultures speak loudest at their moment of their assimilation, then it should come as no surprise that America, with its seemingly limitless powers of cultural absorption, is so rich with the ghost-voices of other nations. American English, the language in which those voices are expressed, is correspondingly less a standardized usage, imposed from on high, and more a consensual form of national practice, shaped by waves of immigrants leaving their particular palm-prints on the texture, nuance, and velocity of our national lexicon. The Diasporic ghost is caught firmly in the American machine-haunting our artistic and moral imagination, and revealing itself with especial vividness in our fiction. From the very first narratives written on American soil-a bloody, gripping little genre called "captivities" which detailed the indignities suffered by early settlers abducted by Indians-all the way to the post-colonial boom in new voices of the last twenty five years, English-language (and especially American) literature has retained a kind of rolling inventory of the particular claims, potentials, and aftershocks of arrival.

A recent short story collection, Drown, by Junot Diaz, chooses as its particular theme the arc of transplantation from the Dominican Republic to America, and does so with unusually fresh, distinguished results. Told mostly in the first person, the ten stories in Drown alternate between childhood recollected in the barrios and fields around Santo Domingo, and the lives of first and second-generation Dominicans in the gritty industrial streets of New Jersey. In the process, the entire classical path of Diaspora is traced: from discontented origins, to the great leap abroad, and the shaky process of arrival and reacculturation.

As one of the very first serious chroniclers of the Dominican Diaspora in English-language fiction, Diaz may not have intended to present himself as "voice of his people," but since he is introducing a slice of heretofore unrevealed life to most American readers, and doing so with a wealth of documentary detail, he functions in part as just that. In this situation, an author runs a variety of risks, including inflation of emotion, self-consciousness, a tendency
to nostalgic reverie, and that more insidious kind of writing wherein all the characters seem drawn from some Central Casting stockpile of racial characteristics. In Drown, Diaz successfully resists these temptations. The prose is too precise and modulated to allow it, and the scenes themselves are anchored in a particularity which lifts them out of the merely touristic or exotic and punches them solidly into the realm of Literature.

Diaspora begins at home-with discontent, poverty, physical threat, or even boredom. Sometimes it's simply called childhood. In the first story in the book, "Ysrael," the narrator and his older brother carouse one summer in the fields outside of Santo Domingo. Long fatherless, and supported by a mother who works long house in a chocolate factory, the brothers chase girls, wander the fields, and decide finally on their chosen fun: tormenting Ysrael, an adolescent whose face was chewed off by a pig when he was a child, leaving him horribly deformed. As in all the stories dealing with remembered life in the Dominican Republic, the squalor and poverty is offset by warmth of atmosphere rendered in a prose accented with the wholesale importation of unitalicized Spanish into English (another great American literary tradition, dating back to Walt Whitman and his mangled French) and cast in sentences starred with poetic imagery. He and his brother listen to "the gentle clop of drunken voices," and live in a house where "rosebushes blazed around the yard like compass points, and the mango trees spread out deep blankets of shade where we could rest and play dominos." When they're not doing their chores or making mischief, the boys explore the rugged terrain: "We caught jaivas in the streams and spent hours walking across the valley to see girls who were never there; we set traps for jurones we never caught and toughened up our roosters with pails of water."

Lest one drift off on the sensitively rendered landscapes, there is the nastiness of the narrator's relations with his older brother, who "pounded the hell out of me," and with whom the narrator fought so much that "our neighbors took to smashing broomsticks over us to break it up." And there is the final, horrifying scene with the disfigured boy Ysrael, who is pummeled into unconsciousness by the brother so that they can lift the cloth mask he wears and at last get a glimpse of the holy mystery of his face: "His left ear was a nub and you could see the thick veined slab of his tongue through a hole in his cheek. He had no lips. His head was tipped back and his eyes had gone white and the cords were out on his neck." At such moments we're closer to the forensic clarity of Weegee than we are the burnished beauties of Oscar Hijuelos.

The inner narrative of any Diaspora is the story of absence-of landscapes, habits, and individuals above all. The family portrayed in many of Diaz's stories is fatherless, and the father's ghost-presence is the core of the book, a kind of ground tone or ambient noise which shades the narrator's whole childhood: "On the days I had to imagine him--not often, since Mami didn't speak much of him anymore-he was the soldier in the photo. He was a cloud of cigar smoke, the traces of which could still be found on the uniform he'd left behind. He was pieces of my friend's fathers, of the domino players on the corner . . ."

The father had flown the coop to-where else-America, leaving his impoverished family in the lurch. Many years later, his son reimagines his dereliction in the story "Negocios," one of the more sustained and satisfying in the collection. In other stories ("Aurora," "Edison, New Jersey," "Boyfriend"), Diaz chronicles the rootlessness, dead-end anomie and gangster cool of the American-born children of his father's generation. Diaz has a fine ear for the idiomatic shadings of speech, and tells these stories in the revved up streetwise voice of an American-Dominican homeboy, whose main occupations are dealing drugs, stealing from the local mall, breaking into the town pool at night, chasing girls, and gallantly providing for his (inevitably) single mother. The footloose summer ambiance of New Jersey neighborhoods is vividly rendered. "Days we spent in the mall or out in the parking lot playing stickball, but the nights were what we waited for. The heat in the apartments was like something heavy that had come inside to die. Families arranged on their porches, the glow from their tv's washing blue against the brick."

The mother of this charming narrator-layabout speaks little English and has responded to the shock of American arrival by withdrawing to a small, embittered corner of herself. Working as a housecleaner, she seems to have scaled down her expectations in life, and, in the way of many defeated people, has begun to implode: "She's so quiet that most of the time I'm startled to find her in the apartment. . . . She has discovered the secret to silence, pouring cafe without a splash, walking between rooms as if gliding on a cushion of felt, crying without a sound."

The American-based stories stand out as faster and punchier than those set in the Dominican Republic. Diaz is especially hilarious on the awkward mating rituals that obtain between stateside Dominican transplants discovering one another here for the first time. In "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or Halfie," he gets in some good cynical cracks about the way to sweet-talk a girl into bed, with special modifications in the seduction-rap for each shade of pigment. "Dinner will be tense. You are not good at talking to people you don't know. A halfie will tell you that her parents met in the Movement, will say back then people thought it a daring thing to do. It will sound like something her parents made her memorize."

Diaz's achievement as a writer lies in the fluency with which he crosses aesthetic borders, roughs up literary distinctions between "high" and "low," and marries documentary realism to the artistic requirements of his craft. His work passes the means test of credibility at the same time as it engages our sympathies. If the occasional longeur intrudes into some of the stories, the fault of his clip-clop, straight-ahead narrating rhythm working at not always satisfying cross-purposes to the lean, very literate and often funny sentences, this is a minor cavil when seen against his overall achievement. Diaz has provided us with an exemplary chapter in the novel of American Empire, showing us both the literal impoverishments produced by colonialism, and-perhaps more difficult to accomplish-the excruciatingly subtle ways in which that colonialism can be internalized and allowed a second life. n

Tolstoy's Dictaphone: Technology and the Muse
Edited by Sven Birkerts
Graywolf Press, $16

by George Scialabba

Something is always passing away, to someone's chagrin. Pronouncements of decline merit skepticism when uttered, as they invariably are, by persons past their biological prime (i.e., older than 25). No gain comes without a corresponding loss, no growth without subsequent decay; but this is just life, and no warrant for doomsaying. Having swallowed these cautionary grains of salt, let us consider whether we may not, after all, be drifting toward the Void.

Sven Birkerts is the most eloquent of contemporary Cassandras. In The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age and subsequent writings, Birkerts has described a potentially enormous shift in our spiritual ecology, a mutation in the molecular structure of individuality. The evolutionary analogy seems apt. For all their differences, cultural evolution and biological evolution share a fundamental mechanism: selection. Forms (of life, culture, personality) compete; the winners reproduce; advantageous innovations become standard. Evolutionary success depends on adaptiveness, the suitedness of a form or practice to its environment. Non-adaptive forms die out.

Memorization is an obvious example: highly adaptive in an oral culture, less so in a print culture, obsolescent in our electronic one. Or consider this observation by Lafcadio Hearn, a visitor to pre-industrial Japan:

The toil of the fields and the labor of the streets are performed to the rhythm of chanted verse; and song would seem to be an expression of the life of the people in about the same sense that it is an expression of the life of cicadae . . . Poems can be found upon almost any kind of domestic utensil-braziers, iron kettles, vases, wooden trays, lacquer ware, porcelains, chopsticks of the finer sort, even toothpicks.

But chanting is incompatible with the disciplines of mass production, and surfaces of all kinds are increasingly preempted for commercial messages. So the human instinct for spontaneous rhythmic and metrical self-expression is liable to atrophy; perhaps has already begun to. Of every change, then, one may ask: what traits, capacities, practices, ways of being will be favored or disfavored in the resulting new environment?

The electronic revolution, everyone agrees, is the biggest change on the horizon and will utterly transform our everyday condition. What adaptations might this change induce in the species undergoing it? As connections proliferate and rates of transmission accelerate, will boundedness, stability, sensitivity to the physical surround, and the other characteristics of our embodied identity gradually become less adaptive? Under the massive, continuous, permanent pressure of a transformed environment, will the dimensions of selfhood alter?

The dimension that interests Birkerts is depth, or inwardness. This is notoriously hard to specify-think of the centuries-long philosophical wars over terms like "soul" or "spirit." Birkerts comes at it in The Gutenberg Elegies through a memorable reconstruction of the reading experience, deploying and (partially) explicating suggestive notions like "immersion," "duration," "illumination," and "resonance." But this experience, at its transfiguring best, yields itself only to attention of a certain quality, concentration of a certain intensity, inner balance, detachment, silence, solitude-just what electronic hyperstimulation undermines. Since we cannot increase our psychic capacity overnight-evolutionary change is slow-as our horizontal dimension expands, our vertical dimension must shrink.

This is a large, tendential argument. It does not imply that books, or selfhood as we know it, will disappear in a generation or two, or that all computers should be immediately unplugged. It merely reminds us that our minds, like everything else, have an ecology, and that if it changes drastically enough, they-we-will change too.

Readers (me, for example) expecting Tolstoy's Dictaphone to be a symposium on The Gutenberg Elegies will be disappointed. It may well be something better; at the very least, full of splendid writing, it augurs well for the new Graywolf Forum series, in which creative writers will address contemporary social and cultural questions. But there's almost too much imagination and verve here; I was hoping for something more dour, dyspeptic, and doctrinaire. Lenin famously warned that listening to too much Beethoven could take the edge off one's revolutionary indignation. The memoirs, meditations, and jeux d'esprit gathered in Tolstoy's Dictaphone-Tom Sleigh's lyrical reminiscence of a Western boyhood, for example, or Lynn Sharon Schwartz's witty phenomenology of telephoning, or Askold Melnyczuk's alternately (sometimes simultaneously) earnest and playful reflections, or just about anything else in the collection-will give anyone with a relish for fine prose intense pleasure. But when the very existence of interiority is imperiled, I want to be hectored, not charmed.

Fortunately, even the most playful or wistful pieces are not merely charming. Jonathan Franzen, narrating his "co-dependent" relationship with "a whole dysfunctional family of obsolete machines," also communicates an affectionate sense of "America's enduring raggedness" and an astute sense of what threatens it. Robert Pinsky's story of his remarkable father-in-law, a visionary handyman and (in his seventies and eighties) freelance science-fiction writer, becomes a parable of "the melancholy of American tinkering, gadgeteering optimism staggering on without the Enlightenment confidence." Albert Goldbarth's joyride of an essay, careering through family history and interstellar adventure, Wulf Rehder's extravagant fantasy of an evening with Ulrich (from The Man Without Qualities) and Valery's Monsieur Teste: these may not pack much polemical punch, but they are a ripping good time.

The nearest thing to an extended argument in the Gutenberg vein is "Either/Or" by Thomas Frick, perhaps the most stimulating essay in the collection. It's surprising that a theme so familiar, even routine, as the banality of mass culture can still generate so much fresh insight. Frick modulates smoothly and with unobtrusive edition from the anecdotal to the cosmic, from prophetic fervor to wry detachment, from Heidegger to Dazzeloids and back. A dozen pages or so of eclectic intelligence lead up to this large but plausible conclusion:

The current vitality of the visual arts, while theory-driven, comes from their refusal to capitulate, from their playful, violent, obsessive attempts to absorb the commodified televisual onslaught, to beat it, for better or worse, at its own game. The result may constitute an endgame, but it is fundamentally a generous, if desperate, impulse-an attempt through simulation, appropriation, and reframing to rerealize and focus our attention on the demolished real of our media landscape. Literature, on the other hand, has simply retreated from its brave modernist beachheads. Perhaps in that retreat we'll eventually find a new direction; perhaps a new source of strength-and not simply febrility-will emerge. But there are no signs of it yet.

Birkerts' contribution, "The Fate of the Book," embroiders his earlier arguments, spelling out the ways in which our new electronic habits may, in time, get down into the grain of our mental life. Open-endedness, simultaneity, and functionality come at a price. "If the screen becomes the dominant mode of communication, and if the effective use of that mode requires a banishing of whatever is not plain or direct, then we may condition ourselves into a kind of low-definition consciousness. There may result an atrophy, a gradual loss of expressions that are provisional, poetic, or subjectively nuanced." For us now, "the opaque silence of the page is the habitat, the nesting place, of the deeper self." We'd better be sure our deeper selves can thrive in a new habitat before we move into one.

Electronic connectivity competes with solitary subjectivity. There is nothing apocalyptic or reactionary, nothing sentimental or alarmist, about this hypothesis. On the contrary, it calls for a sober recognition that nothing comes free and a cold-blooded calculation of costs and benefits. It also calls, however, for a little imagination. We are awfully fine-grained creatures, and bound to be fragile in unforeseeable ways-just like the rest of the natural world, on which we've already wrought considerable, possibly irreversible mayhem. The direction of change is not the only vital question; for a biologically limited organism, the scale and pace of change may also be life-and-death

We may be gods someday, as the techno-visionaries promise. But it will be a distant day. And even then, as St. Augustine asked, what will it profit us to be interlinked with the whole universe if we lose touch with our ineffable depths?

The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History
Lawrence W. Levine
Beacon Press, $20

by Theo Emery
Lawrence Levine is an emeritus professor of history at Berkeley and a former president of the Organization of American Historians. In this smart, well-manicured book, he presents a graceful and disarmingly simple counterargument to Allan Bloom, Dinesh D'Souza, Roger Kimball and other right-wing critics of American higher education. Bringing a historian's sense of pattern to a debate that has generally been disconnected from mere facts, he argues that the recent outcry over declining standards and political correctness simply restates the mantra that has accompanied every shift in the teaching of history and literature. He shows, too, that our notion of a monolithic Western Civilization represented by a narrowly defined set of writers and events emerged only recently as a result of war-time government propaganda, and that university administrations have been challenging this construction of Western Civilization for more than 30 years. And he argues that multiculturalism and changes in the curriculum are the result of uncontroversial shifts in our nation's culture and demographics rather than leftist social engineering.

Levine's first two points are particularly compelling. Conservative claims about intellectual decline assume that liberal education and its corresponding course of study have been a constant since the establishment of the University. Levine knows the history better: "Academic history in the United States has not been a long happy voyage in a stable vessel characterized by blissful consensus about which subjects should form the indisputable curriculum; it has been marked by prolonged and often acrimonious struggle and debate, not very different from that which characterizes the academe in our own day." Bloom's own vigorous defense of what he calls "Western Culture" is only a brief episode in this long debate over literature and history. The notion that "Western Civilization" can be identified with specific books and cultures was being criticized, argued, and reevaluated long before campuses began to change their general education curricula in the mid-1980s.

In presenting his account of this history, Levine highlights some amusing and striking similarities between today's rancorous debate and past academic struggles. The abandonment of compulsory classics at Universities in the early 19th century, for example, caused an outpouring of protest. Anticipating Bloom and company, the Western Review opined in 1820 that should Cicero, Demosthenes, Homer, and Virgil cease to be taught, "we should fast regard mankind as sinking into absolute barbarism, and the gloom of mental darkness as likely to increase until it should become universal." When Romance languages displaced classics, the response was similar: In 1884, Andrew West wrote in the North American Review that English, French, and German language studies were "simply debris of the classic languages, mixed with barbaric elements."

Levine supplements these observations about cycles of complaint with an account of the relatively recent invention of "Western Civilization." This argument will be especially disturbing to culture hawks, both because he challenges their notion that American culture has historically been linked to the so-called Western Heritage, and because he names the US government as agent in that invention. Western Heritage was constructed during World War I, according to Levine, when the US government saw a need to cultivate the public's knowledge of our wartime allies. The idea of "teaching" Western Civilization arose as a strategy for expediting such cultivation. The prototype for Western Civ courses was Columbia's Contemporary Civilization course, itself the stepchild of a War Issues Course established by the Student Army Training Corps. Contemporary Civilization served as a model for Western Civ classes across the country, propelling into prominence, Levine writes, a "Whiggish view of history that pictured Western Civilization as the end product of all of world history, or at least all of world history that mattered." As a "twentieth-century phenomenon which had its origins in a wartime government initiative," Western Civilization as canonized by the conservatives had a heyday which lasted "scarcely fifty years."

Whereas Western Civilization is a relatively new idea, criticism of Western Civ courses is older than Bloom et al. suggest. Though students expressed their support for the overturning of Stanford's Western Civ curriculum with a much-publicized takeover of the President's office-an event repeated subsequently on campuses around the country-Levine points out that the redefinition of general education had in fact begun a generation earlier. In 1968, a report titled "The Study of Education at Stanford" concluded that "general education, as epitomized by the Chicago Curriculum of the Hutchins era and the Columbia two-year sequences in Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, is dead or dying." This conclusion was repeated by the Carnegie Commission in 1972, which stated that "past efforts at a general coverage of all essential knowledge . . . has proved impossible, despite repeated experiments over the last 70 years."

Levine's remaining points emphasize that teaching multiculturalism is a healthy product of American cultural and political evolution. Universities increasingly reflect "fundamental changes in the nature and composition of our society" through an increasingly participatory, democratic curriculum that ratchets wider our understanding of ourselves as a nation. Ultimately, the culture war is about how to respond to those changes, and Bloom's enemy is not so much the erosion of academic excellence as it is the increasing currency of ideas expressing a multiplicity of experiences at home and around the world. Conservatives who would prefer to see our past reflect only the experience of a minority in our population have, Levine argues, "turned on the universities in an effort to punish the messengers and . . . distort their messages."

These latter arguments are interesting but unremarkable. Since Bloom's explosive 1986 entrance to the culture war, various academics and writers have presented convincing and passionate defenses of a more multicultural curriculum; others will doubtless appear. That this debate continues, whether in Levine's work or elsewhere, strikes me as unfortunate. Sparring with Bloom and D'Souza over which book or whose history to study is ultimately a distraction from the real issue at hand, which is the dismaying state of America's educational system both high and low. The reader who looks to The Opening of the American Mind as a bracket to the culture war will disappointed, for at the end of the day- and at the end of Levine's book-the true crisis of higher education remains untouched.

According to the press release that accompanied the book, The Opening of the American Mind is the left's first response to conservative criticisms of the state of higher education. I don't agree with the publisher's claim about priority, but perhaps that's because I have a different perception of the fundamental issues facing American education. To my mind, Russell Jacoby's Dogmatic Wisdom (1994) was the first serious discussion of those issues (see George Scialabba's review, Boston Review, Dec/Jan 1994-95). In his challenge to charges of censure and orthodoxy on campus, Jacoby stakes out the most comprehensive and powerful counterargument to the right that I have read. He points out that the true casualties of the culture war have not been the handful of expensive and self-important institutions that are consistently at the center of debate, but rather an educational system that can scarce afford to engage in such esoterica: our nation's anemic and underfunded K-8's, high schools, and community and state colleges. Sure to make some academics uncomfortable is Jacoby's scathing-and quite deserved-criticism of the left for failing to stake out a progressive position on education overall, and instead engaging the likes of Bloom and his ilk in a war of words to defend faculty chairs, departments, and books read by a tiny minority of students in the nation. For Jacoby, a liberal education consists not of the right to argue over canons, but of "learning to listen to still
and small voices," voices increasingly inaudible under the noise of demolition crews, jackhammers, and gunshots in America's public institutions.

Levine's book, then, provides an incisive analysis of the inaccuracies found in the right's attacks on higher learning, and a valuable reminder that education is the constant substitution of a new historical calculus for the old. For that reason alone Levine's scholarship deserves praise. But the real debate over the pathetic state of general education in our country has not grabbed the attention-and headlines- as have canons and the bugaboo of Political Correctness. Levine does little, unfortunately, to remedy that tragedy.

Originally published in the December 1996/ January 1997 issue of Boston Review

Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

 | home | new democracy forum | fiction, film, poetry | archives | masthead | subscribe |