Eye of the Story

The Evergreen State College

Category: Week 6 Reading

Oscar Wao

Kathryn Herron

Caryn Cline & Sam Schrager

Eye of the Story

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.” – Joseph Conrad

“Chance and chance alone has a message for us. Everything that occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out, is mute. Only chance can speak to us.”  –Milan Kundera

At the time I am writing this I have not yet finished reading Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and so I cannot promise that the connections I am going to try to make in this paper will be of any relevance at all. This book is not an easy read — and I know I’m not the only one that thinks so because as soon as I knew I would be writing my paper on this book I decided to read some spoiler-free reviews on Amazon. Diaz fills this story with a lot of information, he doesn’t care about marking dialogue with punctuation, throws in a lot of obscure references to pop culture, and frequently switches between Spanish and English mid-sentence. Despite all of that the book reads really well. Diaz has an excellent command of voice and his narrators really bring his work to life, managing to push through any potential cultural ignorance and linguistic barriers that may occur.

I don’t know much at this point in the book but here are some things I do know:

1)      The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is so much more than just the story of the character known as Oscar.

2)      Oscar is going to die at some point and while that’s technically true for all of us, it’s a much more pressing matter for Oscar and therefore for us as readers.

3)      This is a story about family, about identity, about chance/coincidence, and about tragedies both big and small, real and imagined.

Before this story even truly begins, one of the narrators tells us that Oscar and his family are cursed. And it’s not just any curse. It’s the fuku and the fuku ain’t something to laugh at. This is how our narrator describes it, “They say is came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that is was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles (1).” So it’s pretty serious. So serious that it’s believed there is only one “counterspell” – the zafa. Yunior (the narrator of this particular passage) hopes that by writing this book (yes, this book, the one we’re reading) he can counter the fuku that has plagued Oscar’s family.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is not a happy book. It is a hilarious and well-written book that made me literally laugh out loud quite a few times, but the humor is mandatory comedic relief. Part of the beauty of this book is in its narrative style. The structure of this book is actually quite complex and by the time we figure out who our first mysterious (and misogynistic) narrator is, we’re unsure if we can even trust his narrative. This reader in particular questioned how he could possibly know everything we end up knowing. We don’t know for sure that the events depicted in this book actually happened (to the characters) but we have good reason to trust that they did happen. However, we have no reason to trust Yunior’s account of these events. The stories that are being recounted by Yunior occurred before he even met Oscar and Lola. He was not there when Oscar was a child and we know for a fact he wasn’t around when Beli was young. Knowing this, we’re forced to question not if the events actually happened, but whether the events depicted actually meant as much to the characters as they do to Yunior. We receive conflicting information from this narrator. On page 6, he tells us that, “I’m not entirely sure Oscar would have liked this designation. Fuku story. (6)” And then on page 194, he recounts a conversation he had with Oscar after his failed suicide attempt. He claims that Oscar told him, “It was the curse that made me do it, you know. (194)”. He tells Oscar he doesn’t believe in that shit, that it’s for their parents. Oscar says it’s theirs, too.

But let’s think about that. Did the fuku really make Oscar jump off that bridge? Or did he choose to? He sees a mongoose (more on that later) a moment before he jumps, and it’s implied that if he had moved at that time he would have been okay.

So we’ve got some magic realism and a narrator that may or may not be reliable. I think it’s worth noting (and remembering) that our narrator is also a writer and, as writers are want to do, may be adding a bit of fiction to his narrative.

This is a story that covers three generations of a family cursed with the fuku. Through its complicated story structure, the use of magical realism, and the story’s complex narrative we see members of this family make the same mistakes over and over again. They are all destined to experience tragedy, especially when it comes to love, though one could also claim the Dominican male’s attitude toward women in this book is a curse of another sort.

 

The fuku and the zafa. That’s what it all boils down to. But what do those two words really mean? If words are just symbols, what are these two words symbols for? I think that the fuku and the zafa represent chance/coincidence and personal responsibility/one’s perception of reality. They are the things we look at to prescribe meaning to our life as well as the things we blame when it feels like everything is going wrong. These two symbols represent life and our reaction to it. We know that the world is a painful place where bad things can happen to good people, but knowing something can only prepare you for it so much. Experience is how you really learn. And boy, do these characters learn a thing or two about pain.

The use of magical realism in this novel makes it that much more challenging to tell if the family is actually cursed or if they are merely the victims of coincidence, a force which at times seems significant when in fact it is not. After all, a coincidence only has power because it is a coincidence. It calls attention to itself. As does the magic realism in this book. On page 152, our narrator goes back to talk about the fuku and the zafa once more. He tells us how others argued over whether or not what happened to Beli was proof that she was cursed, and he presents both sides of the argument without giving us his opinion. All we get are the “facts” and a single quote from Beli, “I met something” (referring to either the mongoose or the faceless man, two other examples of magic realism that come up in this book). Her response is ambivalent. We, the readers, have to make the decision for ourselves. Is this family really cursed? Are they really victims of the fuku? Could this zafa save them? Or is this just the well-written and engaging story of a string of coincidences that led to different members of the same family experiencing different tragedies at different stages in their life, as told by a narrator that has interpreted these events as moments of cosmic significance?

Chi Lin, Oscar Wao – Diaz (Fukú) (close reading)

Chi Lin

EOTS – “Oscar Wao” (Díaz) Close Reading

 

Fukú

In the early 1940’s, right around the time of the Fall (237), the beginning of the end for the family Cabral, a new field of scientific study was emerging. C.H. Waddington, a British geneticist, was in the process of coining the terms epigenetics and genetic assimilation. He was studying the cause and effect relationship between external environmental factors and genetic variation and hereditary succession, ie. whether or not acquired characteristics could be passed down from parent to child. Epigenetics looks at aging, addiction, obesity and metabolism, depression and mental health, any condition that is acquired from the outside world in the span of a lifetime and the capacity for that condition to be passed down from one generation to the next. Think: slavery, famine, generational trauma. Fukú.

What intrigues me is how different schools of thought, say, one scientific, one spiritual, can develop such similar philosophies. Fukú: the curse of the new world, the shadow of evil that laps at the heels of the victims of colonialism. In the Cabral lineage, the fate of Abelard and his family set the tone for the rest of the Cabrals that succeeded them. Paranoia, anxiety, depression, and most of all, horrible, horrible luck. Beli es una negrita, born sick, passed from unloving hand to unloving hand, and even when she does find Sanctuary (259) with La Inca, nothing can protect her from the constant stream of misfortunes that await her. She passes this curse to her daughter, who has her own fair share of traumatic experiences, and to her son, who lives in perpetual injury. Dealt bad cards. Jinxed with bad luck. Fukú.

After the Irish Famine, geneticists conducted studies on the descendants of the survivors. Even generations later, descendants had a notably higher tolerance for hunger and a higher capacity to stave off starvation. Numerous papers have been written on Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome and indigenous generational trauma being passed down transgenerationally. What parents or grandparents or great grandparents go through doesn’t fade quickly. Genomes change, phenotypes are altered, switches are flipped, and somewhere down the line someone feels the pain like a phantom limb.  

It seems only appropriate that Díaz would include footnotes in this text. This book is as much a study of fukú as any of Waddington’s papers were ever a study of genetics. Fukú is as colloquial as epigenetics is technical, but they are, at the core, congruent philosophies from parallel disciplines. Díaz presents the reader with the question: what’s more fukú than this? This story isn’t the “scariest, the cleverest, the most painful, or the most beautiful”, but it’s the one that has it’s fingers around his throat, and what’s more fukú than that? (6). As Yunior, as any good scientist would, he tries to prove his hypothesis wrong in order to prove it right. He shovels piles of evidence down our throats, arguments to the contrary, the fukú of Abelard, the fukú of Beli, the fukú of Lola, the fukú of an entire country enslaved. Look at these stories, they are brutal, indignant, heart-wrenching. But in the end it’s Oscar’s story that endures, that has us limping, stumbling and falling to the final page where we roll to a stop and finally take a breath. Hypothesis tested. Study concluded.

There are countless disciplines with countless interpretations and ways of making sense of the world, of giving meaning to our experiences. Whether you call it a curse or genetics, science or spirituality, it’s hard not to hold on to something like fukú, something that binds the past and present, ancient and contemporary. Maybe Oscar sacrificed himself, Frodo style, jumping into the fiery lava of Zafa martyrdom in the hopes that he would lift the curse from his people. Maybe he just had bad genes and worse luck, figured he would try for one last hurrah, because what was there to lose? I like the first theory better. Maybe that’s the point.

Oscar Wao and Genre

Hayden Crongeyer

Cline/Schrager

2/8/16

Without researching the novel ahead of time I had zero expectations for it. Not evening reading the back of it, I was pleasantly surprised when I realized what this book was actually about. I connected with the novel in a way that I couldn’t with the others. The tragic stories of Oscar and those around him are often compared to the sci-fi or fantasy genres that he was greatly interested in. Being a Genre nerd myself, I believe it is the narrator, Yunior’s inside references and comparisons that allowed me to relate to Oscar on a level unlike any of the other characters we have read about this quarter. It is the same love of Genre that established myself as an outsider since a young age.

First, I want to talk about Genre and how it affects Oscar. When Yunior speaks of Oscar’s love of Genre, it is always capitalized. Genre is used to refer to the sci-fi/fantasy comic books, films and television, and games that could be considered “nerdy”. Because of this, it is Genre that establishes Oscar as a “nerd” and it is his nerdiness, intelligence, and appearance that establish him as an outsider. Along with this, he feels like an outsider within the Dominican community because of his interests. Then once his family moves back to the Dominican Republic, he is even more of an outsider. Fitting in almost nowhere, his only real solid ground and “home” is Genre.

Now directing attention to chapter 4, this is where Yunior talks of living with Oscar in Demarest Hall. Right off the bat it is apparent he is talking himself up in a macho jock ladies man sort of way and making Oscar sound even more sad than he really is. Yunior wants to conform to the stereotype of Dominican masculinity, less interested in Oscar’s “fanboy madness”and more about weight lifting. Keep in mind, it has been Yunior making all these Genre references in the novel so far. On page 172, it becomes apparent that he is ashamed to know about nerdy things when he says Oscar put up a sign on his door in elvish language. “(Please don’t ask me how I knew this. Please.)” Yunior narrates. It’s further down this same page that he talks about giving Oscar shit for watching the anime film Akira all the time, though he “liked shit like Akira”. And this is where I immediately found a weird parallel.

Bear with me as I add some context. Akira is a 1988 dystopian cyberpunk anime directed by Katsuhiro Otomo based on his manga of the same name. The film has amassed a large cult following and is considered by many a landmark of Japanese animation. The plot revolves around a young biker with new found psychic powers named Tetsuo Shima, and his friend Shotaro Kaneda, the leader of their biker gang; The Capsules. Tetsuo is weak and introverted among the youngest in the gang, he has problems with being seen as junior member and a runt. He is stubborn and naive about the consequences of his actions as well as exhibiting an inferiority complex. Kaneda is egotistical and a show off, though beneath his tough cocky exterior he has a heart of gold. He looks out for the safety and well being of his close friends, especially Tetsuo.

I thought for awhile that I discovered an amazing inside Genre reference, but it turns out on page 184 it directly acknowledged. “I always thought of myself as the Kaneda of our dyad, but here I was playing Tetsuo.” states Yunior after witnessing Oscar hanging out with the goth girl Jenni. This was just one of the many Genre parallels and nerdy inside references that Diaz has placed in the book. I have found that my enjoyment of the novel is largely in part due to me being able to understand and catch all if not most of Genre in-jokes. Diaz has masterfully created a multidimensional character that feels like a real person, and it’s the depth of Oscar’s character that makes me feel as though I know him. I can’t help but feel like we would have gotten along.

kate macmillan: close reading wk6

Kate MacMillan
Close Reading: Week Six
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The three novels we have read thus far are striking in their styles of narration; Woolf with her goddess-like omniscience flexing the boundaries of space time and perception, Sebalt capturing the rich and rambling memories of an old man, and now Diaz who in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao births a metanarrative in which the voice of contemporary masculinity is as essential to the plot as flour is to cake. This essay will explore the narrative devices used in Oscar Wao chapters one through four, emphasizing a character analysis of the main narrator and points in which their character traits dictate the telling of the story. In the introductory section of Oscar Wao we are immediately familiarized with the temperament of the main narrator, and although we do not meet them until chapter four it is obvious they are a character in the realm of this story. To us as readers, this dichotomy immediately complicates our relation to the story – we are severed from our ties to Diaz as the author and put in the hands of the narrator who is a character who we must accept as the writer while not forgetting their perspective as a character. When we look at a painting of a landscape we know it was created by an artist, but typically spend more time gazing at the painting as its own entity than ruminating on its creator [art history students excluded].  But of course a painter might paint a picture of himself painting a picture of himself painting a picture of a landscape, which is more or less what Diaz does for Oscar Wao. What I found most fascinating about this technique was that as the narration itself progressively develops into a character – Yunior – the character’s traits become increasingly more essential to the telling of the story, and become recognizable even when Yunior switches to writing from different perspectives. It is beyond polyphony.

Perhaps the most poignant example of this is the presence masculine of perspective. Yunior’s descriptions of Dominican Republic masculinity, dating, treatment and role of women are prominent throughout the narrative. And although good humored, the voice at times seems vapid or brute, an embodiment of the machoism Oscar is constantly contrasted to. Immediately in chapter one, Yunior introduces us to Oscar as “not a playboy with a million hots on his jock” (11). He continues to paint a vivid picture of Oscar as a fat nerdy outcast who’s obsession with girls was matched only by his ability to repel them. These descriptions sum up Oscar’s existence, which at the end of chapter one leaves us pitying Oscar’s girl problems, or at the very least drawing parallels between described standards of masculinity and Yunior’s tone. We do not yet know Yunior, but as the plot unfolds, Yunoir begins to include the voices and perceptions of different female characters, Oscar’s sister and mother. In doing this Yunior acknowledges the strength of women in Oscar’s life, family history, family trauma, immense difficulties faced by diasporadical youth, life in pre-revolutionary DR, which all become important factors in the story he is telling because, as a character, they are important issues to him. Magical parallels align between the cursed characters, creating a sense of oneness that is the Dominican people and Yunior and Diaz.

While the introduction and first chapter establish a loud and gripping narrative voice, it is in the chapters about women that we are most reminded of the intricacies of the metanarrative in play. When Yunior is writing for himself it is easy to think of him as a character, narrator, because the writing is straightforward and spunky, monologic, a matured Catcher in the Rye. In other words it is easy to accept the particular reality being presented within the realm of the story. Diaz reminds us of Yunior’s fictionality and plants seeds to question Yunior’s narrative authenticity when he begins to write for women. Yunior portrays himself as a player, cocky but is sensitive, very aware of gender roles and norms, very concerned with appearance, always thinking about relationships. Diaz does not mask these traits for Yunior in the chapters about women, there is a lingering masculinity to their narratives, a smell of socks.

Although it was my first impression that Yunior was absolutely the narrator of the entire story, after learning of his relationship to Lola I question whether that is her true perspective, perhaps told orally to Yunior, but I should wait until I finish the book to decide. Instead I will examine a passage from Yunior’s tell of Beli’s story, which is brilliantly ripe with conflicting perspectives, between feminine memory and competitive masculinity (which usually is boiled down to insecurity). Yunior lets something slip in the section The Gangster We’re All Looking For by saying that “How much Beli knew about the Gangster we will never know” (119), which indicates how the fictional novel we are reading has tumors of fiction itself and reminds us yet again of the flawed and opinionated character developing as Yunior. In the passage Amor!, which starts on page 99, Yunior describes Beli’s first experience of love, although there is no way in the realm of the story Beli would have told Yunior all those details, of growing breasts, being hopelessly in love, losing her virginity to a little player, especially the scene of them getting caught and then her eventual demise. These parts feel very fictionalized, fabricated, and although it is vastly revealing and important to the plot, reads a bit like a sympathetic fantasy of a best friend’s hot mom.

It is interesting that in the sections about women, Yunior emphasizes the pain they experience of being played by “dominicanos”. Yet in the chapter where Yunior formally introduces himself, he makes sure to establish that he has all the distinguishing characteristics of a dominicano, the ones that Oscar is entirely void of, the ones that damage practically every woman in the story. At the point in time of that Yunior is writing the narrative, he admits a mysterious connection to this family, inexplicable and inescapable. I imagine more light will be shed on this bond in the chapters to come, as I am eager to see. I hope this paper hasn’t come off as assumptuous, for I have only read up to the required half-way mark, and I would probably write an entirely different paper after seeing out the development of our narrator, Yunior. I think the book is brilliant and do not mean to critique the character of Yunior, rather to catalyze thought on how a fictional character’s psychology is dictating this fictional work.

 

Oscar Wao Close Reading

                For my close reading I’ve chosen pages 15-18, beginning at the top with “If he’d been a different nigger he might have considered the galletazo…” and ending on the bottom of eighteen, before the next section, “The Moronic Inferno.”

                Though the text is rich with personality and examples of excellent craft, I feel this section encapsulates, at least in this first half of the book, many or most of the different elements Diaz is working with. From character development, to humor, to the author’s general use of language, this section highlights and exemplifies the very voice of the novel.

                Rather than break it down in random sections or themes, I think it best to go in order, discussing their various merits as I move from fifteen to eighteen in an effort to paint the broadest, clearest pictures of what I took away from this section (and, in a lot of ways, what I’ve taken from the whole book thus far).

                We begin near the end of Oscar’s Cassanova period in which he dates both Olga and Maritza, and must choose between the two after a week of being with both. This first paragraph, this first sentence, showcases Diaz’s cultural use of the “N” word. Used less as a derogatory, racial slur, the word is used more as a means of identity. The way, I think, “nigga” is used in hip hop, and the black culture in general. While still abrasive, it is not laced with the power it typically holds, and when it appears, as it does in the beginning of this section, Diaz is giving his narrator a more authentic, colloquial tone. So, too, with the very last word in the sentence, “galletazo.” Diaz’s constant blending of Spanish with English helps marry Oscar’s Dominican heritage with his “black” American nationality.

                He does this again in the very next sentence, with the phrase, “It wasn’t just that he had no kind of father to show him the masculine ropes” (15). Diaz intentionally breaks a grammar rule, using no kind of father instead of something like, “he didn’t have a father.” Again, it gives the narration authenticity, character, and flavor. As a student of writing, of letters, Diaz’s use of “no” here and in various other spots was often more jarring than his casual use of the “N” word. But it’s effective in establishing the narrative voice. I think, grammatical rules aside, Diaz’s tone takes some getting used to, especially depending on who’s narrating when, but once you find his rhythm it reads smooth and natural.

                Continuing on in that paragraph we come across a good example of how punctuation is used in the book. Or, more specifically, not used, as Diaz delivers dialogue sans quotation marks. “(A puertorican over here? his mother scoffed. Jamas!)” (15). Again we have the blending of Spanish and English, but more important is Diaz’s lack of quotes before and after what Oscar’s mother says. Such is how the dialogue is handled throughout. It’s yet another interesting choice, but as with all of the author’s choices, it’s well done and effective. Not only does it add further “voice” to the narration, it lends the book a certain immersive quality. By removing the quotation marks, Diaz is nestling his dialogue directly into the fabric of the prose. The reader is not distracted by the marks and the flow of the sentences is left uninterrupted. We are not forced out of the story by a paragraph break. This approach, this lack of punctuation, is often initially distracting, more so than the marks themselves, but as soon you adjust to it, find that rhythm of things, it feels totally natural.

                Finally in that paragraph we get another casual use of the “N” word as well as a series of exclamation marked sentences that do a good job of Diaz’s use of imagery. “…how Olga had cried! Shaking like a rag in her hand-me-downs and in the shoes that were four sizes too big! Snots pouring out her nose and everything!” (15). Yet another example of style effectively enhancing the narration with “Snots” instead of snot, the exclamation marks themselves (something I’ve been taught are generally considered a “no, no” in writing), and the pathetic, sad picture of the too-big shoes. Diaz has this wonderful way of throwing you into the action, placing the reader in the present for the briefest of seconds before returning to the literal-past tense of the prose, of the relative expository nature the story has. This paragraph is a great example of that, as it both tells and shows Oscar deliberating and then breaking up with Olga.

                It’s important that, in a story operating largely on exposition and “telling” that we get these moments of action. Of “showing.” Another way Diaz breaks things up, keeps it fresh, is in his use of humor, like on page 17 when he writes, “his (Oscar’s) cool index, already low, couldn’t have survived that kind of a paliza, would have put him on par with the handicapped kids and with Joe Locorotundo, who was famous for masturbating in public.” Dry, relatable, poignant, and though often at the expense of Oscar himself, humor like this is crucial in keeping the story entertaining, and also in helping to keep the tone relatively light amidst a series of decidedly heavy things.

                Which brings me to the end of the section, and in what I feel is the most important part. Diaz does a lot in 15-18 showing off craft, the narrative voice, etc. But here, at the end, we get a quiet moment of genuine emotion. Reading Oscar Wao one may feel a lot of things, but the pace of the book, that rhythm of the tone, is quick. Emotions both dim and bright collide into one another within the confines of the paragraph and are often given little room to breathe. At the end of eighteen, however, we see Oscar move through his adolescence watching Maritza from his bedroom window as he reads books and paints miniatures. We are given a quiet, focused look at the character of our hero and are able to empathize with his plight. “He didn’t imagine that she remembered their kissing—“ Diaz writes, “but of course he could not forget” (18). And then he lets it hang in the air for the reader to take in and relate to and feel something for. It is not crammed in the middle somewhere, lost in the shuffle of the style or the over-arching story, but at the end, where it can breathe. A quiet moment in a sea of loud ones. And a final, perfect example of Diaz’s masterful use of nuance that make Oscar Wao such an engaging, effective read.

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