25 June 2011

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Díaz)


The short happy life of Oscar Wao, as told by Yunior, Junot Díaz's narrator and Oscar's best buddy, began with a disquisition on a curse and ended with an inversion of Kurtz's last words in Heart of Darkness. In-between was an excursion into the territories of the dictator novel, immigrant fiction, postmodernism, and post-LOTR venture. Somehow the book turned out to be a crowd-pleaser, one that pandered to a shallow expectation of what constitutes a "wondrous life".

The novel was angry with the Trujillato - the Trujillo dictatorship regime - in the Dominican Republic.

   ... You might roll your eyes at the comparison, but, friends: it would be hard to exaggerate the power Trujillo exerted over the Dominican people and the shadow of fear he cast throughout the region. Homeboy dominated Santo Domingo like it was his very own private Mordor; not only did he lock the country away from the rest of the world, isolate it behind the Plátano Curtain, he acted like it was his very own plantation, acted like he owned everything and everyone, killed whomever he wanted to kill, sons, brothers, fathers, mothers, took women away from their husbands on their wedding nights and then would brag publicly about "the great honeymoon" he'd had the night before. His Eye was everywhere; he had a Secret Police that out-Stasi'd the Stasi, that kept watch on everyone, even those everyones who lived in the States, a security apparatus so ridiculously mongoose that you could say a bad thing about El Jefe at eight-forty in the morning and before the clock struck ten you'd be in the Cuarenta having your cattleprod shoved up your ass. [224-225]

Yunior's voice was laced with such scathing irony in the proceedings of Trujillo's tortures, abuses, crimes. Terrorist acts were committed and ample examples were given for Yunior to luxuriate in his supreme fury. His offenses were to the point. He never minced words. The dictatorship was presented as an infamy of rapes, sexual assaults, and male domination. He scored a lot of points describing the Sauron-incarnate on Earth. This reader was nodding his head and pumping his fists in the air, shouting "Down with El Jefe! Viva libertad!"

Trujillo isn't getting any reprieve from the devil. The generous servings of swear-words and curses of the narrator were not enough to lock down, reclusion perpetua, the soul of the dictator in hell. The unsubtle deployment of cuss words, the long and winding string of epithets were all sincerely meant to denounce the Ur-regime. Political correctness be damned. When it comes to violation of human rights, Yunior was boiling in his acerbic voice. He was - his greatest virtue as character - a consistent narrator. So consistent in fact that, for me, it became the novel's liability. The narrator - often depicted as a sexist brick - could get so carried away and become too indulgent in his twice-told tale.

No matter what you believe: in February 1946, Abelard was officially convicted of all charges and sentenced to eighteen years. Eighteen years! Gaunt Abelard dragged from the courtroom before he could say a word. Socorro [his wife], immensely pregnant, had to be restrained from attacking the judge. Maybe you'll ask, Why was there was [sic] no outcry in the papers, no actions among the civil rights groups, no opposition parties rallying to the cause? Nigger, please: there were no papers, no civil rights groups, no opposition parties; there was only Trujillo. [247]

Eighteen years! No papers! No rights groups! This passage was at a point in the narrative - about three-fourths into the book - where cruelty and abuses of a repressive regime were already more than apparent. Where the reader already had a more than vague idea that he was not reading about a saint running a government in deep shit.

An antagonistic voice projecting a vile, abhorrent regime (no complaint there). An assault to one's ad hominemic sentimentalidad (none still, Trujillo was baaad you know). A strong current of anger devolved from pure irony to crude complaint (positive). The amoral suasion of the narrator was so excellently laid out and so irreproachable that it kills the joy of the reader. We were so very much prodded on to cheer for Oscar and to double thumbs down Rafael T. We were so conditioned to like the book with an adolescent Facebook thumbs up.

Granted, the novelist was up to some very risky narrative devices. Telling a story whose outcome was already spoiled by the title was no mean feat. (Hemingway at least filled the blank spaces naturally, as if the unfolding of plot did not hamper the act of discovering what happens next.) The crude inelegant style was part of the book's charm, and it's also probably where the problem lies.

A virtue of post-modernist-like stories is how the authors or narrators attempt to insert themselves into the narrative, at the same time also effacing themselves. In this case, the highly conscious narrator shaped the life of one Oscar de Léon according to his street, pop-culture, and nerd-culture vocabulary (photon torpedoes, dwarf-fucking-star, Akira). It was an intelligent voice, very aware of the gradations of offense and offensiveness. The copious lengthy footnotes often revealed his personal commentaries, providing in themselves micro-histories of the Dominican Republic under dictatorship, somehow contributing to a synthesis of that problematic era. A very strong intrusive voice, however, could also kill the narrative.

The danger with an unadulterated voice of hate is that it puts a spin on things that rather trivializes the whole enterprise. I'm not proposing that Yunior tone down his adjectives or that he moderate his verbal assaults. If he did so, then he will not be a consistent character anymore. I'm saying that there is a way of telling - let's say, the Thomas Bernhard mold of creaking complaint - wherein the message (or the form or style or content) can be delivered by a wounding rant that piles abuse upon disabuse. A way of telling that does not lay down history lessons all too obviously, that integrates angry form with angry content without pathetic gesticulations.

The Bernhard rant is subversive and existential and political. Breathless all at the same time. The Junot rant is a trite existential and wholeheartedly political. Yet it lacks the sober hints of subversion.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the June selection of The Wolves.


  1. Rise, thanks for reading this with us--you always provide an interesting perspective as with this unexpected Bernhard comparison of yours! I, of course, agree that Díaz's narrator isn't really subversive at all despite the pose (the slang, the foul language, the hipster doofusisms). Also loved your paragraph featuring the lines about the "ad hominemic sentimentalidad" and how the novel seems to try to sway you into voting an adolescent Facebook style thumbs-up. These are some of the aspects that made the book feel like a sort of potty-mouthed update to The Catcher in the Rye. Like you I presume, I'd rather read Bernhard these days!

  2. True, Richard. There is something liberating in reading Bernhard's deranged narrators. Oscar Wao's nerdisms are no match. If one had to be crass, might as well do it with some class.

    Always a pleasure to read along with the Wolves!

  3. Thanks, Charlie. Now I think I just brushed up with the "real" dictator novel - Jarry's Ubu!

  4. Great post, liking the idea of a potty mouthed teenager chucking foul words as a revolutionary act.

  5. Gary, the pottymouth was amusing, specially in his role as modern-day historian. As Richard noted, hip doofusism. But hip only to a certain point. It couldn't carry the novel past the language.

  6. Thanks for this review, Rise. I've avoided this novel for some time, despite fairly loud raves on one side and more muted dissent on the other. But you've hit on one aspect that turned me off just from my reading the first few pages of the book: a sort of facile, topical, slightly suppurating voice that I knew I'd be unlikely to tolerate through to the end (I was, in fact, reading Bernhard at the time I picked up Diaz's novel last year after hearing a rather enjoyable interview with him; it proved a wrenching contrast). I like your phrase "the sober hints of subversion" a lot. The medium really is the message.

  7. Exactly, Scott. The mordant medium is the message. The novel just had too much fire raging that the smoke had obscured its thin and shrill rhetoric.

  8. "The danger with an unadulterated voice of hate is that it puts a spin on things that rather trivializes the whole enterprise."

    Exactly!! And the incessant LOTR references didn't help any either. I found all the DR history interesting, but it made me wish I was reading an actual "history" instead. And in the light of all that came before, Oscar's own journey seemed rather cute and silly.

  9. Indeed yes, Sarah. The history lessons, the LOTR references, the whole swagger - despite their entertainment or information value - often seemed foisted on the novel, rather than explored. Overall, the story was as if overcooked.