Summer (Bedside) Reading: Week 5
August is the only real month of summer, if we’re being honest with each other. In June you’re not quite feeling it yet, and July is spent gathering indoor time so you can maximize outdoor time next month, savoring the last drops. These are the days when you really can relax because, well, you’re running out of time. Post labor day office culture tends to center around the phrase “hit the ground running”, summer Fridays are a distant memory, like flip flops, and the feeling of the sun on your face, people start breaking out their fall coats, daylight savings time retreats with a tail between the legs into the dark crawl space where it is banished to until next March, and then you blink and it’s Christmas Eve.
I want to take this opportunity to bring you along on a (two part) journey with one of my favorites, Junot Diaz. As a Dominican author raised in New Jersey, he has an incredibly unique and culturally rich perspective. If you’ve never read anything by him, I envy you. As a writer myself, his work changed the way I think about storytelling, as each sentence he writes is an exercise of incredible layering, building characters that are beautifully complex and so, so, frustratingly human.
The Brief and Wondrous life of Oscar Wao
By: Junot Diaz
Like many of us in our tragically angsty teenage years, Oscar, our protagonist, desperately fears that he’ll die a virgin. I won’t ruin whether he dies or not, or whether when/or if he dies, he is still a virgin, even though I’d like to.
Oscar is a disastrously overweight, insecure, and debilitatingly shy teenager who, arguably, lives in the fantasy worlds he so enthusiastically proselytizes. He is a Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien in his dreams. Dotted, aggressively, with Spanglish, Diaz masters the voice of his narrator, illuminating a vibrant cultural fabric in which Oscar exists. A snapshot as life as it is – without bright lights, background music, or contrived plot.
So, we follow Oscar, stumbling, suicidal, fatally confused, through his life. Most of his misfortune is blamed on the “fuku” which is a curse that has haunted his family for generations, all the way from the Santo Domingo to Paterson, New Jersey. (A little dose of magical realism anyone?) Living with his free spirited sister, Lola, and obstinately traditional mother, Beli, he grapples with the expectations of masculinity, and struggles to find his racial, and personal identity.
We see him through the eyes of the seemingly omniscient narrator who switches with fluid ease from profanity to beautiful prose and is later revealed to be Yunior, who is Lola’s boyfriend. Though he narrates most of the novel there are a few narratorial shifts. We are continually reminded that the story is not happening as we turn each page, but that it is being retold by Yunior. It has been theorized that Yunior is a fictionalized version of Diaz, himself. He appears in almost all of Diaz’s work.
But though the exploration of the complex world of Dominican culture and immigration might stand as sufficient, Diaz deftly layers the world of comic books, sci-fi, and other tropes of glorious nerddom right over the top. The complexity of knowledge, rolodex of narrators, extensive (and important) footnotes, and bi-lingual prose might lead you to think that you’ll be dying to put the book down and come up for air. Not the case. But if you’re looking for a breezy, chock full of flat characters and limp plot, forget what the book’s about the second you put it down, kind of summer book, this, certainly, isn’t it.
That’s right. Read the footnotes. They add color, obviously, but they also add critical plot. Just a warning that you’re missing out if you skip them.
Oscar is consistently pursuing love at all costs, and ready for it to literally cost him all he has. He often compares the atrocities of Rafael Trujillo (dictator of the Domican Republic from 1930 to 1961) to battles from his world of fantasy. The fall of Mordor is essentially, equivalent, to the fall of Trujillo.
This book made me work a bit, but I enjoyed every page, flipping like a madman. I finished it in two days, but it lingered long after. It really made me think about the meaning of “home”. And since my dad calls me once a week and asks me to come home, with the glittering bait of the rent free spare bedroom, I get it. I look at my apartment, thinking of it as home, but also fall prey to the memories of my parents house, the home of my youth, as my home now also. And I’m not far away from them. I’m an American, I feel at home in this country. But that gnawing feeling, that feeling of grieving for a home that is no longer home, whether it be down the road, or across an ocean, is a universal human experience. And so is the desire to be loved. And so is the love of Lord of the Rings, right?
Oh, and this was Junot Diaz’s debut novel, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, so yes, it is as good as I’m making it out to be. Trust me. And if you finish this and can’t get enough? Try his short story collection This is How You Lose Her. You’ll get to know Yunior quite a bit better.