Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz (2007)

I finished reading this novel a week ago, and it's haunting me. It was Diaz's first novel and he won the Pulitzer for it, now teaches at M.I.T. Won a MacArthur "Genius" award. Deserved it. I arrived eight years late, but I'm glad I came. (Just why I'm glad I came seems roughly the same answer you'd get when someone says she "enjoyed" Hamlet. q.v. the following.)

Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic, but moved to New Jersey as a youngster. His prose dazzles and reminded me of David Foster Wallace: not so much the style or voice or syntactical ju-ju, but overall Brilliant Mind, mixing a staggering number of allusions to history, pop kulch, esp. science fiction, gaming, and movies.  The anthropological intricacies of ideas and language involved with how Hispanics and Latinos from one society think about Hispanics and Latinos based on their relative degrees of melanin turned up my sociology nobs to 11. (I'm not saying I think this is the major criterion for snap-judgements or valuations, but it seems far more complex than my white-boy milieux, from one who grew up in the Los Angeles 'burbs.) I  also think Diaz writes on the subjects of desire, beauty and sex in particularly compelling ways.

Oscar is that fat, hopeless kid in school who gets picked on by everyone, and worries about ever getting laid. He loves women, but he's a Dominican non-macho gargantuan nerd. As a freshman in college, he's described as "307 pounds." It's some dark stuff. In college he constantly fools himself that finally some girl will love him. He attempts suicide. Still, a lot of him is in many of us, even us skinny folk. I'm haunted by Oscar, because we know this guy. And we wish we'd been nicer to him. And sometimes we were, but...and we sorta "get" why he speaks "like a Star Trek computer" and is so profoundly nerdy and clueless about social interactions, especially with the opposite sex. And still we wonder: is there more to why he's like this? The novel's - Diaz's main posit? - the family is under a curse: the fuku. 

Diaz woke up the Joyce (or, Pynchon)-reader in me in that many of his sentences are larded with references to obscure-to-me fantasy characters and there are citations to Dominican and other Hispanic and Latino histories and figures, Japanese pop culture, nerd culture, more than enough obscurities to delight my inner Wao, etc. The difficulties mount: Diaz writes in Spanglish, including many varieties of Spanish idioms and slang, and my copy was not an annotated version, so dictionaries helped, and so did the Net, of course. Finally, by page 40 or so, I stumbled onto one person's online annotations, which are a work-in-progress and "Kim" of San Francisco is crowdsourcing it. (Or is it sorta Wiki-ish?)

Diaz plays it coy with who the narrator of the story is, but eventually gives it away about halfway through. It wasn't who I thought it was...because I found I'd been prejudiced and didn't think the character in novel could be as thoughtful and compassionate as he had been drawn...but drawn by...who? Ahh, the pomo jukes of Diaz!

                             One of my favorite artists, Bob Campbell, did this for me as a 
                             surprise gift. Check him out!

Okay, the novel's about the story of Oscar's family as lived in the 20th century, mostly in the Dominican Republic. I confess that I'd heard this was a tremendous literary work, but someone in my book group picked it (egged on by me), even though I didn't know anything about what goes on in the book. Immediately we are informed about the Dominican Republic, a place I'd read a bit about, and it was all horrifying. I had read enough about Trujillo (dictator from 1930-61) that I hoped the novel wouldn't stay on the subject. It didn't. It went on and on about Oscar and his sexy feminist sister, and his workaholic, cancerous, and psychologically traumatized mother. There are no cardboard characters in the book. It's compelling on every goddamned page.

I said it didn't stay on Trujillo. But then He came back. And that's what's stayed with me.

Brief sort-of tangent: On at least three occasions I've had talks with friends about the old TV show The Twilight Zone. Usually someone brings up an episode and then we all chime in, then mention another episode and talk about our impressions and ideas about that one, usw. The show had me in a sort of Oscar Wao-ish way between the ages of 13 and 20. I was a total geek for that show, and watched some episodes over and over. I studied Marc Scott Zicree's book on the show. My favorite Twilight Zone episode is called "Walking Distance" but that has nothing to do with this. Another episode, "It's A Good Life," , which features a King-Ubu/Kim-Jong-il-like monstrous little boy with supernatural powers, has everything to do with Diaz's novel, so I'll return and try to get to the crux...

In going back to the life and times of Oscar's grandfather Abelard,  the accomplished medical doctor and center of intellectual activity in the DR, a man I'd have liked to have known, it's bluntly stated that living in the DR under Trujillo was like living in "It's A Good Life" (see p.224, ff forward and backward), which I have always thought was one of the most horrifying stories I'd ever seen. It continues to creep me out, after (easily) more than ten viewings. (See above link.)

Combine that with the most brutal banana republic fascist regime - where about half the population is a snitch or a cop or part of the secret police and the dictator doesn't wish you into the cornfield, but has goons waylay you in city traffic, kidnap you, then beat you with rifle butts until you're almost dead, then leave your body in the sugar cane fields. There's the wealthy class on the island, who own everything, there's the dictator and his goons, who can take that away from you and literally erase everything about your existence, even your signature. And then pretty much everyone else is in squalor and lives in a state of constant anxiety. And oh yea: the dictator has his goons monitor the populace for every beautiful girl, apparently the younger the better, and he gets to fuck her, or your family is ruined. No daddy can say no to Trujillo, or not for long. Torture of the Gitmo variety was commonplace. ("At least he was anticommunist!" - Unistat)

Just one of many delights from the Trujillo regime: when the price of sugar dropped - he'd stolen 80% of the sugar plantations for himself - he blamed the Haitian slaves who worked those fields, and had 20,000 of them massacred.

Unistat backed Trujillo for a long time, simply because he was anti-Communist. Eventually the CIA saw for themselves what a horror show the entire island was, and were vexed: yea, but he's anti-Commie! What do we do? JFK-lovers need to read up on his way of handling it. (This story will have to be told later. Or better yet: check into it fer yer own self?)

Throughout the book and the footnotes, Diaz sticks with the fuku narrative about why such horrific things happened to Oscar and his family and ancestors. In interviews he talks about Trujillo and how his family reacted when he brought up the topic. It's completely repressed.

So, the haunting has to do with my own silly neuroses about vast income inequality and the militarization of the police, a massive surveillance State, and sham political elections. Because I've read about these histories throughout my life. Because, when I read Wilhelm Reich's The Mass Psychology of Fascism and he showed that fascistic configurations of political life has been the default mode throughout most of what we call "history," it made sense to me, I hate to say. And because Reich and Orwell and other writers have suggested the psychological horrors of brutal regimes can last for generations.

And Oscar wanted to live in Akira. Or Middle-Earth. He just wanted a kiss from a beautiful girl and to fondle a breast, maybe even get laid.

I get it.


Sue Howard said...

It's great to see this. One thing I've always missed about Robert Anton Wilson is the high-quality pointers to, and intuitive/insightful commentary on, various books and thinkers which I hadn't yet discovered. But I don't need to worry, as the OG is back! I'm now looking forward to checking out this novel by Junot Diaz.

Eric Wagner said...

Great post & great art by Bobby.

Twilight Zone: William Shatner and John Lithgow acted in the same part in the TV show and the Twilight Zone movie about a man just released from a mental hospital who thinks he sees a monster on an airplane wing. Well, on "Third Rock from the Sun" Shatner played Lithgow's superior. On one episode he commented that he thought he saw a monster on the wing of his plane. Lithgow responded, "I hate when that happens".



michael said...

@Sue Howard: Thanks! I'll try to live up to that.

@Eric Wagner: There was a funny bit on Seinfeld where one of them says their recent experience was like that Twilight Zone episode...

-Which one?

-You know...the one where the guy wakes up and doesn't know where he is or how he got there and no one knows who he is.

-Oh they're all like that.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

My son strongly recommended this book to me, too. I do need to get around to reading it.