Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"The Brief Wondrous Life"

My first attempt at reading Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) about a year ago was not at all a wonderful experience, but it was, in fact, quite brief.

I just couldn't get into the novel, largely because of the narrator (recently, this has been a problem I seem to have quite often, although after sitting in on a colleague's class on Disgrace, I'm feeling better about that particular novel).

Diaz's narrator is hyper-masculine and, well, pretty foul-mouthed.  So be forewarned: you may not like what you hear from him.

What made my reading of the novel a success this time around was the fact that I--oddly enough--had read Diaz's other work, in particular his short story collections, Drown and This is How You Lose Her.   I say "oddly enough," because... it's the same narrator.

Yunior is the narrator of Oscar Wao, and he is also the narrator of Drown.  If the narrator of This is How You Lose Her isn't Yunior (and I honestly can't remember for certain if it is or not), it might as well be: it's the same kind of voice.

The difference, for me, was that Drown offered shorter narratives--so I could face the prospect of spending less time looking at the world from a perspective I didn't really like, at the end of the day--and the stories in the collection look at Yunior's childhood and teenage years.

I found that, once I had spent small snippets of time in the narrator's mind and I had some insight into why he spoke and acted the way that he did, I could manage Oscar Wao far more easily.

I think it was also a question of timing: like Julia Alvarez, Junot Diaz is from--and writes about--the Dominican Republic, and like In the Time of the Butterflies, Oscar Wao tells a story that is, at least in part, set in the DR under the dictatorship of Trujillo.  So personally, I found it really interesting to look at how Diaz's novel incorporates the issues of history and memory (largely through the use of footnotes that are, at times, only semi-serious), in contrast to Alvarez's treatment of a similar topic and time period. Diaz in fact references Alvarez's novel in Oscar Wao.)

I also found Diaz's use of sci-fi narratives and comic book heroes a really interesting way of thinking through the relationship between cultural myths and personal identity.  Diaz rethinks and rewrites the motif of the immigrant's journey in interesting ways: the story of Oscar, his sister Lola, and their mother Beli doesn't simply rehash the idea of coming to America and making a better life for oneself.

Instead, Diaz's novel questions what it means to leave--and what it means to return, after having left.  Instead of a straightforward, linear narrative of departure, Diaz inverts the chronology of his story, starting with Oscar, Lola and Beli in the US, then working backward to tell the story of Beli and Beli's family, then moving forward again to the present day--only to have the novel culminate in a scene of return.

Oscar Wao isn't a satisfying story, in a lot of ways.  If you like a novel that offers answers and provides closure, I don't think this novel will do it for you.  But if you like a novel that is about the complexities of process, then Diaz's novel will certainly offer plenty of food for thought.

Having concluded the novel, I find myself thinking a lot about the question of sympathy: what does it mean to sympathize with a narrator or a character?  What traits align our sympathies with a particular figure, and why?  If a novel chooses to upend those sympathies--to select figures with whom we are probably going to struggle to sympathize--does it change us as a readers?

My short answer to that question is, yes, I think it does.  In ways that I am only beginning to comprehend and articulate.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."