Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The life, and death, of a nerd

Though it's not at the head of my backlog of books to "write-up" here (3 overdue and counting), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is easily the book I've enjoyed the most in quite a while. So, before I forget all about it, allow me to introduce the 2008 winner of the Pulitzer Prize by the Dominican émigré and MIT professor, Junot Díaz. A novel that, bizarrely for a work of literature, I even came across this trailer for.

Taking the form of a ramshackle multi-generational family saga, the novel is built up (surprisingly enough) around the short life of Oscar Wao, a ghetto nerd growing up in present day New Jersey. Shunned because of his steadily increasingly weight and his devotion to science fiction, fantasy and comics, Oscar is further pained by his predilection for repeatedly falling in love with girls who never share his feelings. A situation that doesn't change even when Oscar goes to college, ostensibly more fruitful dating grounds. There, faced with more crushing disappointments, Oscar attempts to take his own life, but bungles his suicide bid and returns home to his family. Then a trip to his mother's homeland, the Dominican Republic (DR), opens his eyes to beauty in the world, and introduces him to an older woman who, for once, finds him engaging. But just at this point of finally finding a glimmer of happiness, Oscar's idealistic romantic streak sets him on a collision course with more malevolent forces.

Narrated largely by Yunior, Oscar's college roommate, the book also prominently features his mother Beli and his beautiful sister Lola. Beli is an unwilling émigré from the Dominican Republic (DR) who fled after attracting the near-lethal attention of the murderous regime of Rafael Trujillo. As well as describing Beli's turbulent life, Yunior also fills in the bloody history of her family's earlier descent from the respectable middle classes of the DR, first to its slums, and then to their equivalents in the US. It is a story punctuated by violent events and possible encounters with the divine that Yunior ties together in a rambling, quasi-mystical exploration of fukú, the curse, and its diametric opposite, zafa.

What a joy to read. Though it's a rambling shambles of a novel with only the loosest of loose structures to it, Oscar Wao is told with such vitality and humour that it's difficult not to be won over by it. This is largely down to the voice of the majority narrator, Yunior, who lays out Oscar's tale in a brash, conversational spanglish that brilliantly stage-manages the (broadly) tragic events. His streetwise voice animates both Oscar's and Beli's dismal lives without over-egging the pathos, and does so in a way that even paints Oscar's late self-knowledge as something of a victory despite his untimely end. But, mostly, he's really just funny, particularly so when contrasting his own vibrant love-life with Oscar's desert-like equivalent. Even when the story takes a darker turn, Yunior's vivacious telling of it prevents things from becoming too maudlin.[1]

A particular joy for a nerd like me was the novel's frequent use of stories from science fiction, fantasy and comics to parallel Oscar et al.'s lives. Various events in the narrative, good and bad, are referenced to apposite ones from iconic classics like Middle Earth, Dune and Planet of the Apes. For instance, at one point in Beli's story we're told, role-playing game-style, that a beating she receives inflicts 167 hit points of damage to her (Trujillo, we are later told, receives a fatal 400 points of damage when assassinated). Her survival, and recovery, in the face of this beating is compared to Superman's, "who drained from an entire jungle the photonic energy he needed to survive Coldbringer", in The Dark Knight Returns. And the novel closes with a direct reference to Dr. Manhattan's closing words in Watchmen, "Nothing ever ends". As well as it being nice to have touchstones from one's own (dubious) cultural-upbringing referenced, it's done with real panache here, giving the narrator (for a nerd, anyway) an extra level of verisimilitude, as well as being very funny at times.

C and I had a discussion the other night about the occurrence of the Golden Mongoose as a plot device that intervenes twice to save both Beli and Oscar from death in a Dominican canefield. She, correctly, identified the introduction as of a bit of magical realism intruding into the tale. I kind-of saw it as allegorical, and made some ridiculous argument about it being a significant character from local folklore that was almost bound to appear to people in a seriously injured, and thus altered, state. I guess that I'm just too much of a staunch realist, especially with books that I like, and am quick to subconsciously invent a dubious rationalist explanation to subvert mystical experience whenever it appears. The novel's introduction of the curse, fukú, and its counterspell, zafa, which the narrator uses as a theme to describe the events in the story, is a little similar, but much more easily put down as a allegory.

Anyhow, notwithstanding my gushing praise above, the novel got something of a drubbing at C's book group, largely for the same reasons that made it a winner in my eyes. But even so, for me it's still easily the best novel I've read in quite a while. It's not going to make my top ten,[2] but it's a joyful read, in spite of its doomed hero.

[1] He's also something of a footnote fan, and uses these throughout his portions of the book to fill in tangential information, the history of the DR and general digressions on subjects that occur to him. When I first came across these early in the book I was sure that they'd totally annoy me, but they're used relatively sparingly, and they're often quite humourously tangential asides from Yunior.

[2] Which is already out of date after the tour-de-force that is The Poisonwood Bible.

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