Book of

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

For the past 10 years or so, the bulk of my fiction reading has probably been fan fiction. One salient characteristic of fan fiction is that stories are mostly produced in and for visible communities. You’ve got the community of “fans of X’, but there’s also generally the context of people who post at some particular site, on a specific mailing list, favoring a particular pairing, whatever.

What I notice now when I read pro fiction, especially profic that’s not tightly within genre sf or fantasy, is that I don’t know if the references I’m picking up or the allusions I’m seeing are “really there”, intended by the author to convey anything like the meaning I’m getting out of it. I don’t have a sense of whether I’m part of the intended audience or not, if the author is speaking to me or anyone like me — it makes me feel very uncertain and untethered.

Now I am going to put aside my uncertainties and talk about Oscar Wao and what it seemed like to me, regardless of authorial intention (which is so last millennium, anyway).

I read the first two sections of Oscar Wao with a growing sense of irritation. Most of this is from Oscar’s POV, and he struck me as waaaay too much of a Nice Guy®, Subspecies Fanboyensis, for me to want to hang out in his head for the rest of the book. It was particularly exasperating because there are several female characters in that section who seemed much more vivid and interesting than Oscar. I didn’t want to spend my time on boring Oscar, I wanted to read about his sister, and his mother, and the other women at the edges of the narrative.

So I was just about to quit, when I was trapped in the bathroom and started the next chapter. And lo! it’s about Oscar’s sister, Lola, and from her POV. And then there’s a very long section about Oscar’s mother, Belicia, which is really the lynchpin of the book. This section isn’t from Belicia’s POV, it’s a little bit distant, with many footnotes. Is this supposed to give a Terry Pratchett quality? To me it does. It’s a very strong 3rd-person, with a lot of Spanglish thrown in. Fortunately for me, I can follow or deduce the meaning of most of the Spanglish, so I found it cool and authentic — but I have no idea how impenetrable it seems to the “average” reader. Or perhaps Diaz doesn’t give a hang about the “average” (white) reader, he’s writing for his people, the nerds of color and of accent. And I love that part. I don’t know if I’d be as comfortable with his diction if I didn’t read Ta-Nehisi Coates, but I did, so I am.

It’s quite startling to read a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (=SRS LITRY BZNS) which makes more explicit literary references to “The Lord of the Rings” than to any other work. One almost feels respected. In skimming over a couple of mainstream lit-critter reviews, I see that everyone mentions the LOTR references but they don’t seem to know what they’re doing in there.

IMHO the point of the LOTR references is that LOTR is the story of a fight against a Dark Lord. Most of Oscar Wao is about life in the Dominican Republic under Trujillo and Balaguer: “this,” says Diaz, “is what a Dark Lord really looks like. This is what it’s like to live in Mordor.” And what it’s like is that the good guys lose, they die, they get beaten up in the cane fields.

Toward the end of the book (p.307), as Oscar’s life is racing toward its conclusion, Yunior (the narrator of much of the book) says of Oscar:

He read the Lord of the Rings for what I’m estimating the millionth time, one of his greatest loves and greatest comforts since he’d first discovered it, back when he was nine and lost and lonely and his favorite librarian had said, Here, try this, and with one suggestion changed his life. Got through almost the whole trilogy, but then the line “and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls” and he had to stop, his head and heart hurting too much.

– and that is the last reference to LOTR in Oscar Wao.

Coming out of RaceFail, this really resonated with me. But I was unsatisfied with the way that we’re *told* that LOTR was really important to Oscar, but not *shown*. In particular, the culmination of Oscar’s life — and his death — comes from LOVE, in particular his True and Awesome Love for a woman who has never read LOTR.

I guess, on reflection, that it really bugged me that Oscar can only find LOVE with a non-immigrant woman Ybón) who is a prostitute — at the end, like every Nice Guy®, he never even considers looking for a woman who *thinks*, for his nerdgirl opposite number. There’s a quality of the Whore-With-a-Heart-of-Gold, Symbol-of-the-Country to Ybón — I kind of wonder if Oscar is supposed to have spent his time mansplaining to her, which is why it’s True Love.

But aside from the ending, which didn’t really work or gel for me, I really love this book. The thoughts, metaphors, and references are so *fannish*, the language is such a complex, all-American mish-mash of cultures and dialects. And the story — I won’t say “plot”, because it’s too random for that — involves so much history and politics I only partly knew, so much of a reality which (like most epic fantasy) involves a real, true Conspiracy of Evil … Fanboy Makes Good.

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