Saturday, October 20, 2007

Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz

Imagine a map of the Dominican Republic large enough to spread over northern New Jersey. Or at least, Paterson.

Not quite invisible. Transparent, but not clear, unevenly clouded. Like a giant table cloth dropped from the sky, blood stained and frayed, thickening as it descends like a fog, enveloping the city and its people, wrapping around them, covering everyone, everything--an envelope that is never quite absorbed, so in every face you take in, you are looking through this residue, this stain--a mark of distinction, a not quite transparent wound that you know will never heal.

Oscar Wao.

The title tells us this is his story. Though, perhaps we should read this more precisely: It's not his story, certainly not his alone. There is his sister, Lola--whose story rivals his own. And the story of their mother, Belicia Cabral, a figure so large, so compelling, with such will to life, that I see in her the problem at the very center of this book, the problem Diaz must have posed for himself, the problem, once begun, he had to solve before he could finish it, the aesthetic core of the novel--how to pry Oscar from Mother Beli and set him free?

For Lola, (Oscar's sister) the conflict is more straightforward. She and her mother are at war. Diaz assigns the narrative voice here to Lola: her struggle, her rebellion, the failed escape--a section of the book that appeared in somewhat altered form as a short story in the New Yorker. But for Oscar, it's different. The conflict has been internalized. Beli doesn't reign it over him as she does Lola. She doesn't need to. Oscar, in a sense, is Beli--mutatis mutandis. A reverse configuration. The correspondence of opposites. She is willfully self-assertive; in her youth, her sexual obsessions possess her like a third force, and she pursues them to the edge of self-destruction.

Oscar is his mother's child, but he turns desire against himself, externalizes a conviction of his own impotence, alienating the objects of his lust or seducing them to desexualized companions. He is nerdy, self-conscious, reads science fiction and fantasy, a player of role games. And he knows this. He sees it. He acknowledges it. While his mother, Beli is opaque to the roles she assumes, to the games she plays. Lola, here too--serves as intermediary... the only one with consciousness sufficiently independent to tell her own story.

Oscar might have, had he lived. Here is an interesting problem. He was more acutely aware, more mindful of who and what he was than anyone around him... but--maybe for just that reason--he spent his efforts writing imitations of the fantasies that had given him solace--escape from his misery.

It was not always so. When he was a child, we are told, he behaved as would be expected of a proper Dominican male--falling to the floor with a girl, mimicking the pelvic movements of intercourse to the applause of adult voyeurs. Something went wrong. Pre-pubescent: stringing along two girls; playground kisses--until at a moment of crisis, he chose the wrong one. From that moment, as though his life were cursed.

I think this is a red herring. The other choice, we are informed, would have been different, but no better. No, the choice explains nothing. The curse was there from beginning. The Dominican, the family Cabral Fuku. The beginning of his real life--as his mother's son.

Yunior, a former lover and friend of Oscar's sister: the voice that frames the narration. We assume his is the voice in the opening chapter. We know it is the voice at the end. He might be an imagined projection of Junot Diaz. A voice mediating between the fictive world of Oscar, Lola, Beli and the other characters. He gives us lessons on Dominican history in footnotes. His character makes this possible--how Diaz is able to include these notes--and they would make a chapter in themselves--without breaking out of the narrative framework.
To return to an earlier point, the title matters. This is not the story of Oscar Wao--it is his life, because his is the life that encompasses all the characters in the book. He is all that his mother has denied. And in the end, frees himself from her, not in rebellion, like Lola, but by affirming the antithetical drives he carries within him. In doing so, he surrenders to the curse, the Fuku... he has to. Amor Fati... and defeats it. The sacrificial victim--who, having lived the life of the victim all his years, frees himself... from the mother of his victimhood, frees her with him. Transforms the curse to a blessing.... and yet... Diaz doesn't let us forget... such triumphs do not raise the dead, do not erase the scars, do not vanish the shadows...

... of the Trujillos that haunt us still.

Matthew Sharpe has a good review of this book at Powells

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