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.