Sunday, November 15, 2009

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

I like to use a story from this collection called "Geraldo No Last Name" at the beginning of the school year. It is about a girl named Marin who dances with a boy she doesn't know at a club right before he is hit by a car. Though Marin doesn't even know his last name, she waits at the hospital for hours while he is in surgery, perhaps because the little that she knows is greater than most of the people he encounters, who dismiss him out of hand as a "wetback" or "brazer," and because those he's closest to live thousands of miles away, in Mexico. I use it because it sets up a conversation about the power of names--a sneaky way to help me learn the names of my students--and because it's short enough to be read, digested, and picked apart in a single class period.

But I had never read the whole book. For better or worse, the stories collected here never deviate far from the pattern of "Geraldo No Last Name"--they are all short, some no more than a page, and they all concern a cluster of Hispanic immigrant families in Chicago, drawn from Cisneros' own childhood. The central figure is Esperanza, a young Mexican girl whom Cisneros follows from youth to young adulthood, mapping her journey of self-discovery, so to speak. To providethe full effect, I reproduce a story called "Laughter" in full:

[excised]


There is a lot to like here--for instance, I think Cisneros aptly captures that deja vu feeling that haunts all of us, the way we are reminded of things without knowing why. Her spare, domestic metaphors ("ice cream bells' giggle") are inventive but seem to originate wholly from Esperanza's world. And the whole thing is wonderfully succinct.

The problem is, there are about thirty of these. Cisneros' style, with its unattributed quotation, is exhaustingly detached, and her subject matter is repetitive. If you were to pare down some of the vignettes of "quirky" neighbors (who cares?) and the litany of stories in which Esperanza and her friends discover their budding sexuality and changing physiques, you might be left with a very powerful fifty-page collection. Instead, even at 110 pages, The House on Mango Street feels long and padded, without a center to revolve around.

3 comments:

Amanda said...

I read this last year and really couldn't stand it. It felt simultaneously pretentious and pointless to me.

Stuart Bernstein/Susan Bergholz said...

To the proprietor of this blog:

You have posted copyrighted material by Sandra Cisneros on this blog in violation of U.S. copyright law and international copyright conventions. While we appreciate the intention of your posting, we hope you will understand that this posting is in conflict with the author's interests and previous publishing agreements for this selection, both as part of the book from which it comes and on its own in anthologies and textbooks. We take no issue with your writing about the work, but the posting of the work requires permission. Please remove the copyrighted material from this blog immediately. Thank you.

Sincerely,
Stuart Bernstein, Permissions Director for Susan Bergholz Literary Services, stuart@susanbergholz.com

Nihil Novum said...

Remember when this happened? It was awesome.