Monday, November 10, 2008

DOGEATERS by Jessica Hagedorn

It took me a long time to get to this review. I guess I have mixed feelings about the book. I can't help but feel I have to give it glowing praises because the author is Filipina. The writing is great; that's for sure. It's good writing by virtue of the author having the capability to turn on a movie (think Crash) in my head and letting me live the experiences of the characters. The characters, so many of them and so diverse, make the book engaging, fascinating, rich. More than a novel, it is a vignette of stories that may or may not be interrelated. A collage, according to the author, that mirrors the eclectic mix that is Manila. It is so non-linear that it took me a while to figure out that the narrative jumps to and from the 50s and 80s. (Headscratch moment) That was pretty dense of me because the 80s character, Joey Sands, was a DJ, which is just so disco era (insert stupid smiley here). The writing is gritty and the narrative incredibly well-paced.

The pacing, to me, is the double edged sword to this novel, the reason why I have mixed feelings about it. To make the reading thick and fast, the author had to rely on representations of Filipinos, representations easily recognized or related to by those who know the culture, representations that easily cross over to stereotypes; or are they more like caricatures? The pacing, because it makes you read fast, does not allow much time for savoring the characters and excavating the layers of suggested meanings that satirize Philippine society.

I suspect, and I can't say for sure since this is not my perspective, that the novel works well for the American reader who does not know much about the Philippines. This serves as a sampler, though hardly complete, of Philippine culture. And a quick history lesson, though dates and names have been fictionalized. It shows the hard edged side of Philippine society along with the quirky. To the non-Filipino, this can be a good appetizer to start learning more and going deeper into understanding our culture. A bit like how Joy Luck Club serves as a Chinese History for Dummies.

For me, it is realistic to a certain degree. The part where Joey Sands witnesses an assassination successfully brings me back to the political drama of the early 80s. Though I liked the non-linear approach to the story, I think depth has been sacrificed, and the book failed to reach me beyond the entertainment level. Or maybe it deserves a second, slower, deeper read.