Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

Two things you will have no doubt heard by now about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: that it is crazy good, and that it takes geek chic to the next level by not only making its title character a card-carrying, Klingon-speaking, D&D-playing, Tolkien-loving, hardcore nerd but by narrating his tale in a voice savvy to the ins and outs of geekery. These things are both true. Díaz's first novel is one of the finest I've read this year, well deserving of all the awards and critical praise heaped upon it. An irresistible, compulsive read that goes down as smoothly as a drink of water, and almost as fast, so untenable is the notion of putting the book down. And the novel is indeed told in a voice that shifts effortlessly from Spanish-tinged patois to references to the stalwarts of geek culture--The Dark Knight Returns, The Matrix, The Stand. This is a novel in which a handsome, fair-skinned Dominican is described as 'melnibonean.' In which the terror of living under the thumb of a megalomaniacal dictator is expressed through a comparison to the Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life." And in which real-world politics are interlaced with Lord of the Rings references.
At the end of The Return of the King, Sauron's evil was taken away by "a great wind" and neatly "blown away," with no lasting consequences to our heroes; but Trujillo was too powerful, too toxic a radiation to be dispelled so easily. Even after his death his evil lingered. Within hours of El Jefe dancing bien pegao with those twenty-seven bullets, his minions ran amok--fulfilling, as it were, his last will and vengeance. A great darkness descended on the Island and for the third time since the rise of Fidel people were being rounded up by Trujillo's son, Ramfis, and a good plenty were sacrificed in the most depraved fashion imaginable, an orgy of terror funeral goods for the father from the son.
The title character is Oscar de León, the child of Dominican immigrants who is born and comes of age in a forgettable New Jersey suburb during the late seventies and early nineties, where almost from birth he is drawn to the geeky and SFnal--Planet of the Apes, Doctor Who, Akira, and of course Tolkien. And though the intensity of his interest is unparalleled, it is shared by other characters--his fierce and independent sister Lola, and the novel's narrator Yunior, Lola's on-and-off college boyfriend and an aspiring writer, who is probably acting as Díaz's alter-ego.

Díaz, in other words, is telling the literary fiction equivalent of Minister Faust's The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad--a story about nerds of color. But whereas Faust's novel presented the best possible version of such characters--conscientious, clear-eyed young people with a deep connection to their cultural heritage and an even deeper commitment to their community--Díaz hews closer to reality. Lola and Yunior are relatively normal--both struggling with their immigrant roots, with an upbringing that pits their parent culture against the one that surrounds them, and with difficult family histories, all of which leaves them with very little time to be superheroes-slash-community-activists (though Lola comes close). And Oscar--Oscar is a mess, every single stereotype about the genre geek rolled into one fat, pimply, socially inept package. This kid can barely make it through the day without being verbally or physically abused--he's not saving the world any time soon.

Though much of a the novel takes place in the recent past and in the US, the heart and subject matter of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao are the Dominican Republic during the early and mid-twentieth century, a period during which the former Spanish colony suffered through the standard South American cocktail of indignities and upheavals, dictators and police states, atrocities and revolutions (Díaz helpfully provides several informative primers on the country's history and its prime movers and shakers, wryly dedicating them to readers who "missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history"). After introducing us to his main character in his modern, familiar setting, Díaz travels back in time to tell the story of his mother and grandparents, and the calamities that played a part in his creation. Díaz is such a prodigiously gifted raconteur that it is easy to simply be carried along by these stories, by his careful unfolding of Oscar's family history, and through it the bloody history of Santo Domingo. It's only once the last page is turned and the spell of his narrative voice is broken that we look up, shake off the last of Díaz's fairy dust, and wonder just what, beyond all those spectacular literary gymnastics, the novel amounts to. What does a portly New Jersey nerd have to do with a wealthy Dominican landowner, even if they are grandson and grandfather?

It certainly doesn't help that unlike his courtly and intellectually curious grandfather (and, to a lesser extent, his strong-willed though shallow mother), Oscar, though eminently pitiable, is an extremely unappealing character. We're trained, as genre geeks and as consumers of popular culture, to side with the underdog, with the picked-on and unpopular kid. We've read too many books and seen too many films in which that kid turns out to be the hero, the diamond in the rough whose qualities and skills are unappreciated, but who blossoms into someone quite special, not to expect that same transformation here--a transformation which Oscar, himself a voracious consumer of such stories, clearly hopes for. But, though influenced by genre, The Brief Wondrous Life is not a genre novel, and the transformation Díaz is concerned with is one of perception, in which the lesson of these books and movies curdles into something awful--from 'just because you're unpopular in high school doesn't mean you're not a great person' to 'if you're unpopular in high school, you must be a great person' to 'anyone who is popular in high school must be a horrible, evil person.' No one deserves the cruelty and abuse that Oscar endures throughout his adolescence and early adulthood, but neither does he do anything to deserve kindness, friendship, or love, and he never learns the lesson that these things have to be earned, that having suffered doesn't entitle him to have them. "He was turning into the worst kind of human on the planet," Yunior says, "an old bitter dork."

I'm sure most of us have known at least one example of a person similarly twisted by their frustrated sense of entitlement, so it can't be said that Díaz's portrait is a cliché or a stereotype (certainly not when it's as painstakingly, and painfully, drawn as Oscar's is), but at the same time it's hard not to wonder why he went to so much trouble. Yes, such people exist in geek circles, but does he have to air our dirty laundry in public, among people who all too often assume that this kind of half-formed humanity is all that geekdom amounts to? And what does any of this have to do with the sad history of the Dominican Republic? These are the questions I asked myself upon finishing The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and then I realized that the answers were one and the same. Oscar exemplifies the sad truth that people who have suffered are rarely made better, or more likely to recognize and try to prevent the suffering of others, through their pain, and that having suffered makes one no less likely to inflict suffering. And this, in a nutshell, is Díaz's history of the Dominican Republic, a nation that goes from colonial rule to tyranny to a police state that "out-Stasi'd the Stasi," in which neighbors inform on one another for material gain or to avenge petty slights, to the corrupt modern era in which brutality is the order of the day. And, continuing unabated through all these upheavals, a deep-seated racism that runs the gamut from the valorization of light skin to anti-Haitian genocides, and a misogyny that permeates every aspect of Dominican life.

If, that is, misogyny is even the right word. To hate women, after all, one must first acknowledge their personhood, if not their right to express it. In Díaz's Dominican Republic, and in the immigrant neighborhoods in which Oscar, Lola and Yunior grow up, women are things, objects of desire, whose worth is measured solely by their attractiveness to men. And they all buy into it. The internalized racism on display in the novel is scary (Oscar's dark-skinned mother is self-conscious of her skin color, and as a girl will only date light-skinned boys), but not nearly as terrifying as the internalized misogyny that every single female character--even the indefatigable Lola--drinks down with her mother's milk. Oscar, fat and unattractive, at least survives his childhood, but when a neighborhood girl is similarly afflicted, she goes crazy with self-hatred. Nearly every female character in the novel has a boyfriend who slaps her around, and to whom she goes back again and again. Not a single one of them seems to consider that she doesn't need a man in her life. The seeds of Oscar's family's downfall are sown when the dictator Trujillo hears of the beauty of their eldest daughter, whom Oscar's grandfather refuses to make available to him. And, of course, there's the defining characteristic of the Dominican male--his promiscuity. "It's against the laws of nature for a dominicano to die without fucking at least once," Yunior tells Oscar.

But then, the great tragedy of Oscar's life is that he seems set to defy those laws, and in his quest to find that elusive holy grail he develops the characteristics of that most odious specimen, the Nice Guy. The man who believes that kindness and friendship should be offered only in expectation of sexual favors, who enters into one friendly relationship with a woman after another expecting just this kind of quid pro quo and becomes enraged when it doesn't materialize (there's a similar dynamic at play in Joss Whedon's recent online musical, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. It's easier to ignore because Neil Patrick Harris is so winning as the geek in question, but there's no denying that he imposes his own idea of what she's like on the woman of his dreams, and is moved to murderous rage when she falls for someone else). Oscar falls hard and fast, for women he hardly knows, whose only appeal is that they're willing to sit still long enough to become his friends, but who clearly want nothing more than friendship from him. Though he's far from the prototypical Nice Guy (he's more likely, after getting the 'I just want to be friends' talk, to slink off in despair than rant and rave), there's never a sense that Oscar sees these women as anything more than a means to an end. And this, Díaz strongly implies, is what he's been taught from childhood--that to be a worthy man he must have as many hot girlfriends as possible, preferably at the same time. It's certainly the mentality that other Dominican males embrace, including Yunior, who despite being deeply in love with Lola can't seem to keep it in his pants.

So pervasive is the objectification of women in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and so matter of factly does the narrative--by which I mean Yunior--treat it that at first one might almost assume that neither he nor Díaz are aware of it, that the emotional pummeling that the book delivers to female readers (and, one hopes, male readers as well) is unintentional. The more I think about the novel, however, the more obvious it seems that nothing could be further from the truth, that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is Díaz's screed towards his native culture, an mirror held up to reflect its ugliest and most vile aspects. You thought Díaz was airing geekdom's dirty laundry in public? Try being a Dominican and reading this novel. "Ten million Trujillos is all we are," Lola bitterly says towards the end of the novel, but by the same token she might say of Dominicans that they are a nation of Oscars, too caught up in their own pain to ever think of others.

Though he obviously references the role that colonialism, and later on US interventionism, played in bringing Dominican society to where it is today, Díaz isn't particularly interested in white people or white American culture. Oscar, Lola and Yunior grow up in an immigrant enclave, dominated by the culture and norms their parents left behind. There are no white characters in the novel, and when white people are mentioned it's usually as an undifferentiated lump--they are "the chief tormentors" of anyone non-white in Oscar's high school, in college they treat him with "inhuman cheeriness," but mostly they're in the background, unimportant and unacknowledged. On the one occasion where Díaz takes a serious look at white people's role in so much of the suffering that Dominicans have endured, however, it feels like a knife to the heart:
He read The Lord of the Rings for what I'm estimating the millionth time, one of his greatest loves and greatest comforts since he'd first discovered it, back when he was nine and lost and lonely and his favorite librarian had said, Here, try this, and with one suggestion changed his life. Got through almost the whole trilogy, but then the line "and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls" and he had to stop, his head and heart hurting too much.
As I've said already, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao isn't a genre novel, not even by association or attitude in the way that William Gibson's latest entries have been. It is, however, steeped in genre, and clearly written by a man who loves these artifacts, these books, movies, and TV shows. Which is why he gets to say such things, and to paint as painful and unflattering a portrait of the genre geek as Oscar's is. He's part of the family, and is therefore allowed to criticize it. For the same reason, Díaz gets away with his ugly portrayal of Dominican society, with saying things about it that an outsider simply can't. It's not just that Yunior loves his parent culture even as he excoriates it. What he feels for it runs deeper than love. Dominican is what Yunior, and Oscar and Lola and their parents and grandparents, are, a part of themselves that they can never leave behind or overcome. What's left for all of them--and, I believe, for Díaz--is to hope for better, for some healing of the wounds that have gone on to cause so much suffering.

At the beginning of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, we're introduced to the twin concepts of fukú and zafa--the curse and its redress, the evil eye and the force for good that frustrates it. A powerful fukú, Yunior tells us, has been laid on Oscar's family, but as he unfolds the tale of that family's misfortunes we realize that the fukú lies on all Dominican society, that it is the cruelty, racism, misogyny, and most of all the inability to give without expecting anything in return that he has been describing for 300 pages. Towards the end of the novel, Yunior comes to believe that Oscar may have discovered the zafa that will heal this wound. When Oscar finally, finally loses his virginity, what sweeps him off his feet isn't the act himself but "the little intimacies that he'd never in his whole life anticipated, like combing her hair or getting her underwear off a line or watching her walk naked to the bathroom or the way she would suddenly sit on his lap and put her face into his neck. ... He wrote: so this is what everybody's always talking about!" But of course no one ever talks about it. Not a single male character--not even Yunior, who knows that through doing so he might save his relationship with Lola--ever talks about intimacy, ever rates it above the physical aspect of sex. That Oscar, of all people, can find the path to this deeper well of feeling gives Yunior hope that he, and others like him, can too. So, in his own way, Oscar may very well have saved the world.

13 comments:

Foxessa said...

So many in 'genre' are feeling cheated because the book was presented to them as something other than what it is -- and the presenter(s) seem to be other members of the genre, writers and / or readers. I don't know why this should be so, but it does seem to be.

Since we spend time in the DR, know many a Dominican, I had extra reasons to love this book, and I do. Plus we were at the DR's enormous annual Feria del Libro this spring, where Díaz was the guest of honor. He's a thoroughly unassuming, humble guy, but it's clear from his presentations that he knew exactly what he was doing throughout the writing of the book.

It's a brilliant work of contemporary fiction, and you have understood it thoroughly.

Love, C.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the discussion, cause the book sounds like an interesting handling of machismo in other cultures.

Though, for the record, all the things you deplored, the misogyny, the racism, the philandering, etc. Every single one of those runs through the "ancestral" culture of those of us whose bloodlines are Latin. I don't know about Italian or French or English or Portugeso, and so on, but your description fits basically everyone whose ancestors resulted from the entire race of Spaniards being unable to keep it zipped. "God, gold, and glory, and not necessarily in that order." (Which is why I put it as "ancestral", since I don't really have any idea what my ancestors were like before New Spain.)

livrelibre said...

Thank you for explaining what I loved about this far more coherently than I ever could have.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone notice the references to Stephen King's The Stand... Captain Trips and Mother Abigail?

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to add to what other people have said--this is a great post that really helped me to understand my own feelings and thoughts about this brilliant, magical novel. Thank you for providing such a thoughtful and thought-provoking assessment.

Heather J. said...

I just found your post and I think it is fabulous. I had a hard time with this book (for reasons explained in my own review) and felt like I didn't understand "the point" of it all. However, after reading your review, I've got a LOT more to think about.

I'm attending an author talk where Diaz will be speaking this weekend. When I write a recap of that talk, I'll be including a link to your review as well.

Wandering Pugilist said...

This is an excellent post. I just finished the book myself and this explanation helped put the book in a clarity I was struggling to find words for. I especially found the last part about Oscar finding the truth in intimacy being the essence of the book. A truth of the world in many ways.

Thanks for the post. It helped.

blurryyellow said...

I’m painfully late to this post, but wow! This was absolutely thoughtful and beautiful. Also incredibly helpful in terms of organizing my disorganized notions of the book. I read it when I was traveling and as a result my feelings about it are still somehow a little muddled.

HypnotiqOne said...

Thanks to you, I now "get it." I was not one to know/identify any of the references nor Spanglish used in this novel (but I rarely quit a book midway), so this review helped me to better understand this work post-hoc. I recognize that the amalgamation of themes/genres/language/story/history/etc. is what make it honorable. So kudos to Diaz! And again, thank you for painting a more recognizable picture.

Anonymous said...

I am wondering what anyone has to say about the recurring imagery of the faceless people, the blank book and the golden mongoose

Anonymous said...

For all of Oscar's faults, one thing that was obvious to me is that wasn't just looking to get laid. It was obvious to me that he was longing for the whole package of romantic intimacy, which is also incomplete when the physical dimension is missing-- at least, if you're a human being with a sexual dimension.

Also, friendship, kindness and love might need to be earned, but everyone is entitled to human dignity-- something which Oscar was denied by those who abused him for being a 'freak'.

Susan M. said...

This is absolutely the BEST analysis of "Oscar Wao" I've read! I just finished reading the book for a second time, hoping to give it one more chance. The first time I read it, I also fell in love with Diaz's verbal acrobatics, but I could not get over how much I disliked Oscar. I felt like he held this (mostly) beauitful collags of Dominican history & culture as an adhesive as appealing and effecitve as old chewed up gum. I felt exactly the same when I finished the book a second time until I read your blog! Now I can appreciate Oscar's ugliness from a different perspective, a real and unapologetic one. I may be encouraged enough now to read the book a third time. Thank you so much.

Priyamvada said...

I didn't appreciate the book till I read your review. To me it was one homogeneous glob of perversity, profanity and failure. I now see it in a totally different light--thanks.

Post a Comment