starlady: Anna Maria from PoTC at the helm: "bring me that horizon" (bring me that horizon)
[personal profile] starlady
Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007.

This is a really, really excellent book, clearly the exception that proves the rule that the Pulitzer Prize often goes to the totally undeserving.

Probably everyone knows by now that this book is about the eponymous overweight Dominican nerd from New Jersey of the title. Let me tell you, if you haven't read this book--particularly if you're in a position to get the genre, and particularly Tolkien, references--you really, really should. As the late [personal profile] skywardprodigal pointed out, Oscar's very existence is a rebuke to a lot of the nastier myths about (the lack of) SFF fans of color, and if only for that reason, it's worth reading. But there's a lot more going on here than that, and I don't want to overlook any of it.

The book tells the story of Oscar from the perspective of his one friend, Yunior, but Oscar's story isn't just his own--it's the story of his sister Lola, of his mother Beli, of his grandmother La Inca, of their family, of Trujillo, of the Dominican Republic itself. Unlike many other readers, I did get about a microsecond of Dominican history through reading Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies, whose protagonists the Maribal sisters are also frequently name-checked in the footnotes.[1] Díaz goes deeper and much more explicitly into all the ways that Dominican history is fucked up, and it was interesting getting a comparative perspective on the Trujillo era, to say the least. More to the point, words fail at the sheer verve and pleasure of Díaz's writing, even when he's describing some of the most horrific practices of a horrific regime, and a horrific history. (Sidenote: I don't suppose it surprises anyone that Oscar's New Jersey and mine are almost totally different, but let me assure you, this is New Jersey, and Oscar and his sister are indisputably of New Jersey, and I could recognize New Jersey in their lives and even some of the places they spend those lives, and I really enjoyed that.)

Having skimmed most of the enthusiastic blurbs on the covers and endpapers, I actually suspect that most mainstream literary critics didn't get the real point of this book. As [personal profile] torachan pointed out in this post, the fat-hate and misogyny is overwhelming, but like Abigail Nussbaum, what I think Díaz is doing here is actually indicting both of those overwhelming cultural predilections, as well as, explicitly, internalized racism amongst people of color (to say nothing of the racism of the larger, white-dominated U.S. society). Take, for example, this passage from when Oscar returns, post-college, to his high school as a teacher:

Had Don Bosco, since last we visited, been miraculously transformed by the spirit of Christian brotherhood? Had the eternal benevolence of the Lord cleansed the students of their vile? Negro, please. Certainly the school struck Oscar as smaller now, and the older brothers all seemed to have acquired the Innsmouth "look" in the past five years, and there were a grip more kids of color--but some things (like white supremacy and people-of-color self-hate) never change: the same charge of gleeful sadism that he remembered from his youth still electrified the halls. […] Every day he watched the "cool" kids torture the crap out of the fat, the ugly, the smart, the poor, the dark, the black, the unpopular, the African, the Indian, the Arab, the immigrant, the strange, the feminino, the gay--and in every one of these clashes he saw himself. In the old days it had been the whitekids who had been the chief tormentors, but now it was kids of color who performed the necessaries. (264)

Oscar's sister Lola, who sees perhaps the clearest of everyone in the novel, but still can't escape the family curse, the fukú, says it more succinctly: "Ten million Trujillos is all we are" (324).

The other trick to what Díaz is doing here lies in subverting the reader's expectations. (There's a larger subversion at work here too in the entire premise of the book, again as [personal profile] skywardprodigal pointed out). Let me just quote Nussbaum's review wholesale:

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."

Oscar is a Nice Guy, or thinks he is, and he ultimately walks open-eyed into his fate, as blinded by the conventions of the narratives he loves as we, the readers, aren't supposed to be because the book wasn't aimed at genre readers. That said, though, I have to disagree with Nussbaum's interpretation of the very end of the novel, which discusses Oscar finally losing his virginity to a stripper, Ybón. (That this is the very last scene in the novel says a lot about the priorities of Yunior, its narrator.) Oscar's last words, "The beauty! The beauty!" are a clear callback to Kurtz from Heart of Darkness and his last words (Conrad and his wife are explicitly name-checked in the narrative, for a double hint), and I don't think that Oscar here has saved the world by finally getting laid. His manuscript on breaking the fukú never arrives from the Dominican Republic. He circled, three times, the panel at the end of Watchmen in which Doctor Atomic tells Adrian Veidt that "nothing ever ends." The real potential salvation in the novel isn't Oscar getting laid, but is Lola's daughter--daughter, crucially--opening her uncle's books and manuscripts and taking up the pen herself, one day. Until then, in Middle-Earth, we live in hope.

[1] I loved the footnotes from the very first one.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-01-30 07:41 (UTC)
yifu: (young mustang)
From: [personal profile] yifu
Nitpick: In the Time of the Butterflies is by Julia Alvarez (recently finished it).

(no subject)

Date: 2013-01-30 15:24 (UTC)
were_duck: a woman corrects the grammar of graffitti that says "anarchy forever!" (anarchy in the library)
From: [personal profile] were_duck
I read this book a few years ago, just before it won the Pulitzer I think, and I still recommend it to people. It is so excellent and barbed.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-01-31 00:02 (UTC)
metaphortunate: (Default)
From: [personal profile] metaphortunate
Maybe I should reread this. IDK. I do 100% believe that Diaz meant to problematize the brutal sexism in the book, but he did that by hammering the reader with hundreds of pages of brutal sexism. Maybe he's trying to criticize Yunior's point of view, but Yunior doesn't know that, so we just see all the girls through the fuck-object/troll lens...same as a billion other books. The effect is exactly the same, so I'm not sure Diaz succeeded in "interrogating" it.


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