Just today, I posted a solicitation for book recommendations as my Facebook status. I asked for fiction recs-- proscribing Stieg Larsson in advance -- and almost immediately received a host of literary endorsements from my many bibliophile friends (and, a pleasant surprise, from my students as well). I was happy to see that most of the suggestions were titles that were on my short list of must-read's anyway, confirming my longstanding suspicion that shared literary preferences make for good friendships. Even the recommendations that I knew I would ultimately reject for idiosyncratic reasons, like Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus or Jose Saramago's The Double*, still made sense to me as "good" recommendations. As the suggestions came pouring in, I tried to clarify my solicitation with the following: "I'm basically looking for something to knock my socks off like Diaz's The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao did." To which one of my good friends, anotherpanacea (aka, Joshua Miller), replied: "Haven't read Oscar Wao: what's appealing about it that you'd like to replicate?"
That's a great question. And so very hard to answer. My first instinct is to say that anyone interested in surveying my literary tastes should consult my blog-post "Dr. J's Top 25 Books List," but the truth is that most of the books on that list are not fiction, so I'm not sure that it would be all that helpful in this case. After reviewing that list myself, I'm not even sure that the fiction pieces on that list are especially illustrative of what I like in fiction. So, I'm going to try to take on Anotherpanacea's question more directly here, and say what it was about The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao that I found so appealing, and that I would like to replicate. (I mentioned to a friend recently that I would describe my current pleasure-reading phase as "post-Diaz," so using Oscar Wao as a kind of touchstone for my literary tastes is probably apropos.) There are a few preliminary caveats that I need to make first, including (1) that most of my non-fiction reading and research involves human rights violations and crimes against humanity, (2) that, against my better judgment, I am often drawn to fiction that replicates the same themes (like Oscar Wao, and The Reader and A Sunday by the Pool in Kigali), and (3) that, well, my professional life is that of a philosopher and, consequently, I'm partial to high-concept fiction.
Let me begin this way: I would list my favortie "contemporary" fiction authors as the following:
-- Philip Roth
-- Milan Kundera
-- J.M. Coetzee
-- Jonathan Safran Foer
Runner-ups to this list (by which I mean authors of whom I have only read one or two novels) are:
-- Ann Patchett
-- Jonathan Franzen
-- Junot Diaz
That said, here's what I loved about Oscar Wao and would like to see replicated:
(1) big, comprehensive, national and transnational political themes, situated as they are in a particular racial or ethnic history
(2) a stark, searing, and probative consideratation of human frailty
(3) a quick, piercing and true dialogue-driven plot
(4) the exposition and exposure of our collective weaknesses, told through the particular trials of a particular character's (universalizable) weaknessess-- on this score, Roth's The Human Stain rivals Oscar Wao for top billing-- and finally, perhaps obviously...
(5) PHILOSOPHY MASKED AS FICTION. (For my literary tastes, it must be philoosophical, and it must be masked.)
So, for those of you who are my FB friends, feel free to offer your suggestions there. For the rest of my blog-readers, here's your opportunity to contribute recommendations.
* I think one of signs of a mature literary sensibility is the ability-- and, more importantly, the willingness-- to admit what one doesn't like. Literary taste, like all tastes, can be a fickle and idiosyncratic thing. It took me a long, long time to get to the point where I could put a novel that I didn't like down without finishing it. At the risk of overgeneralization-- and there are always exceptions, of course-- I am at the point where I can say with some confidence that I don't especially enjoy the following: Latin American fiction (which includes a lot of magical realism), fiction by German writers or about German themes, Beat Generation lit or its stylistic and thematic heirs (among which I include Chuck Pahluniak), and sci-fi fiction. I can appreciate the literary value of many of the great works in each of these genres... it's just that I don't like to read them.