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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

entry arrow2:18 AM | The World Will Corrupt You

Never judge a book by its cover -- or by its blurbs. A few days ago, I allowed myself some tempting purchases from BookSale, and one of them was this book: Mexican writer Javier Valdes's People Like Us: Short Stories, whose cover art arrested my attention, and whose praise from Like Water for Chocolate's Laura Esquivel declared in bold print from the back cover: "Finally! A Latin American author with a sense of humor!" She also promised "quirky characters, offbeat rhythms, and generous dose of humanity," and I went hmmmm.

She is wrong in all three counts. The characters are not quirky, they're ridiculously flat. The rhythm is not offbeat, it's predictable from beginning to end. The dose of humanity is not generous, because there is no "humanity" here at all, only a macabre skewering of what passes for it, told in a tone that is chillingly gleeful it reminds me of the chuckle of a serial killer. The only saving grace I can think of for this book is that there must have been a mistranslation from the Spanish by Stephen Lytle. But perhaps that is not really the case.

I like its premise, which begins with the sinister simile it offers in its title: these are stories about people like us, like you and me -- and in a sense Valdes is correct: we all possess the tendencies he writes about in these pages. The premise is that the world is a corrupting place that turns even the nicest of people into monsters, given the right (or wrong?) circumstances. In the title story, a couple becomes estranged and consumed by greed and murder after they discover a bloody treasure in a hidden basement of a rented house. In "Neighbors," a perfectly moral family disintegrates into carnality and crime as its members begin to have sexual desires for members of a neigbouring family -- who happen to be all sexy devils. In "Cornelia," a rich man who means well becomes a tragic case of irony after setting up his drunkard of a brother with a perfect prostitute. In "Beat Me to Death," a nice young man becomes an out-of-control vigilante, splattering every paragraph in this story with blood courtesy of knives guns, and baseball bats. In "Flidia," a beautiful young woman is abducted by a family friend and becomes a sexual Stockholm Syndrome case, and once released by her kidnapper, debases herself again and again in order to find her unknown assailant whom she has fallen in love with. In "Orquidea," a young man visits the family of a girl he wants to date, and becomes witness to their grotesquery and their Catholicism.

It's not a funny book at all, and by the time I got to "Flidia," I was on the verge of flinging away this volume of utter filth. And yet I react not because my morals have been affronted. I have loved books about perverse people before, and Vladimir Nabokov's pedophilic masterpiece Lolita is a perfect example of that. So why do I abhor Valdes' book so much? I come to this conclusion: what redeems Lolita (and other books just like it in terms of scandalous subject matter but luminous artistry) is the language. People Like Us is spare in its use of language -- the writer boasts of spinning stories from the gut -- and its narrative oftentimes aspire to frank brutality, but alas it doesn't sing. It's clumsily written, it's filled with cliches, and reading this book is like reading a story by an earnest freshman Creative Writing student who has just discovered "shock value" but does not know subtlety. (The author, by the way, is a dentist in real life, and judging from the gutter-ish nature of his imagination, I wouldn't risk being a patient under his dental care. I've seen Marathon Man, for Pete's sake.)

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