Oscar Wao: The United (Mis)States of América

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“bedside,” licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

“And Manhattan, before fading from our Universe, replies:

‘In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.'” (331)

America is mistaken if it thinks that whiteness is a focal feature within its own literary tradition. Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a narrative that pushes back against the notion of the fixed tradition-genre-audience relationship. To do so, Díaz presents his novel through the biased lens of the macho, hotheaded, misogynistic Dominican male, Yunior. It is evident that Díaz—“consciously writing not from the genre but about it”—represents Yunior in such a way as to render an analysis not only of the narrator and the text’s characters but more significantly, the reader as well (Miller 92).

Just as the novel calls attention to itself within the genre of fiction, it also rhetorically calls attention to the reader as an active participant. Díaz’s novel, therefore, stimulates a reflection of the self.

In order to explore this, I will first grapple with the reader’s experience of Yunior’s narration in Oscar Wao. Then, I will analyze Díaz’s use of footnotes. Finally, I will argue that through constant plot obstruction, Díaz forces the reader to analyze him or herself and by doing so, reveals that an American literary examination of Dominican-ness is not exclusively for the white gaze.

To begin, it is apparent that the text “challenges readers with significant amounts of untranslated Spanish, continual references to often obscure sci-fi fantasy culture, and a crash course in the worst of twentieth-century Dominican (and American) history” (O’Brien 75). In other words, with code switching, vulgarity, misogynistic slurs, and constant references to science fiction and comic book texts, Oscar Wao makes no attempt to accommodate the reader’s experience. For example, the practice of reading is obstructed throughout the text as Yunior recalls certain dialogues between characters: “She was very guapa, I said casually. Abuela snorted. Guapa soy yo. Your mother was a diosa. But so cabeza dura. When she was your age we never got along” (75).

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© Tasha Guenther

For a Spanish reader – though the reading experience is jagged and uneven – the meaning is not entirely lost. For an English reader, however, deriving full meaning is impossible. Sometimes a reader may pull significance out of the words by wading through the surrounding text and orienting him or herself within the narrative, but this is not always possible. For example as Sean O’Brien argues:

In some case, context proves helpful: when Yunior explains that an infatuated Oscar would ‘call out to passing women—Tú eres guapa! Tú eres guapa!’ it is obvious that he is basically catcalling (13)…But other times, crucial information is communicated in slang-filled Spanish that cannot be deciphered through context clues. (79)

Examples of this slang-filled Spanish obstruct the reader’s ability to fully connect with Yunior as a narrator. Though it is clear that he seeks to relay the story—though perhaps only as his “own zafa…to ward off any fukú”—Yunior also seeks to distance himself from the reader (89).

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© Tasha Guenther

When he describes Beli and the Gangster’s “first trip together” and says “for those capitaleños who never leave the 27 de Febrero or who think Güaley is the Center of the Universe: Samaná es una chulería,” it is clear that he is trying to make the reader feel disoriented and uncomfortable (132). Through this, an individual’s relationship to the text as the reader is realized.

Since the reader is given an excess of informational footnotes – to the point where they almost become a burden to read – the notion that the reader is an active participant in the reading experience is evident. For example, as T.S. Miller argues, “such comments as ‘For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history’ suggest that Yunior intends to educate an audience presumed to lack detailed knowledge of the Dominican Republic, perhaps implying an audience with a traditional Western background (2)” (92). Other examples of this such as, “if you look in the Dictionary of Dominican Things” (20) and “a common story you hear about Anaoana in the DR” contrast starkly with Yunior’s use of Spanish slang, as mentioned above (244). Though Díaz is clearly calling attention to the white man and his Western tradition here, this does not remain an exclusive feature throughout the novel. It is, in fact, quite the opposite.

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“Junot Diaz @ Strand Bookstore,” licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Aside from code switching from English to Spanish, there are numerous times when Yunior shifts the tone by directly speaking to Dominicans. For instance, Yunior calls attention to Beli’s “classic mistake of telling these Dominican hombres about the new love of her life, how happy she was,” while she is in a relationship with “the Gangster” (131). Then, Yunior turns his attention to the Dominican reader by saying, “Sisters: don’t ever do this” (131). As well, within the footnotes he directs his attention to, “those of you who know the island (or are familiar with Kinito Méndez’s oeuvre)” and how “[those of you] know exactly the landscape I’m talking about” (256). Yet, in the next sentence, Yunior explains the said landscape in great detail. Why, if Díaz’s narrator constantly obstructs the reading process through almost impossible references, does he present such detailed information in the text and subsequent footnotes?

The novel seems to conclude “not so much that genres and their boundaries should be collapsed, but that each reader already collapses, internalizes, and reassembles them to create his or her own account” (Miller 104).

Even as O’Brien argues, “readers of Oscar Wao, in being forced to decide so frequently what knowledge they will marginalize through decisions they make about researching or simplifying each intertextual reference,” come face to face with a reflection of self (89). This reflection of self comes from the force put on them to actively participate in unfolding the knowledge being projected, obscured, or hidden within the text. Readers “are encouraged to consider to what degree their choices reflect or differ from those that have led to the kinds of personal and political situations depicted in the novel” (89). With this, it is evident that the relationship between reader and text is of the utmost importance. Thus, the reason Díaz does not accommodate the reader’s experience is because he expects the reader to accommodate him or herself within the reading practice. The reader, when given the task of reading Oscar Wao, is forced to understand and reflect on the act of his her own reading. At the same time, however, the white reader will undeniably struggle with the text more than the Spanish or Dominican reader. This, again, reveals the notion that American literature is not exclusively for the white gaze.

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nytimes.com

Díaz undeniably calls attention to an American reader’s biases and tendencies within his or her own reading experience. Throughout the novel’s duration, however, these biases and tendencies are exposed and reflected back onto this reader. Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a narrative that pushes back against the notion of the fixed Western tradition and white audience relationship. He explores a blending of genre, narration style, and the audience whom is being narrated to and focused on. All the while, he presents his novel through the biased lens of the chauvinistic Dominican male, Yunior. In giving his narrator such a makeup, he allows his reader to analyze the text in layers – first the characters being narrated, then the narrator himself, and finally, the reader as… a reader. By calling attention to the reader as an active participant, Díaz’s motives are exposed. His novel stimulates a reflection of the self, no matter who that self is. Importantly though, he marginalizes his English-speaking, white reader. With this, he unfolds the American literary tradition’s mistake in upholding the belief that exclusive rights belong to the white, English-only reader.

Bibliography

Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Penguin Group, 2007. Print.

Miller, T.S. “Preternatural Narration and the Lens of Genre Fiction in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.Fiction Studies. 38.1 (2011): 92-114. 8 June 2015.

O’Brien, Sean. “Some Assembly Required: Intertextuality , Marginalization, and ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association. 45.1 (2012): 75-94. Web. 8 June 2015.

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Plato’s Republic, Book X and Ion: the Never-ending Dualism

Boldini Giovanni's Reading in Bed

Boldini Giovanni, Reading in Bed

The poet is like a painter who, as we have already observed, will make a likeness of a cobbler though he understands nothing of cobbling; and his picture is good enough for those who know no more than he does and judge only by colours and figures (Republic Book X).

And what they say is true, for a poet is a light and winged thing, and holy, and never able to compose until he has become inspired, and is beside himself, and reason is no longer in him (Ion).

As in Plato’s Republic, much of the Ion seems involved with undermining the poet (or painter) as an individual, and the process of poetry (or painting) as a whole. Either the process is imitative or it is not a process at all, and it is surely not a valid human endeavour. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates simply shuns poetry as an art, calling it an imitation of a copy of the truth; Plato’s Ion, however, esteems the poet (the ‘good one,’ anyway) as the individual who contains the gift of being “inspired, possessed” (Richter 41). Still though, poets are left hanging amidst the stigma that they do not really do any work. Sure, you have a gift, says Socrates, but your gift is that of possession “by the divinity to whom [you] are in bondage” (41) – i.e., as a poet, you are never able to do anything until that moment of inspiration (which again, is not your own intrinsic doing) when you transcend and may begin spewing out ideas, experiences, and occurrences that aren’t really your own. These ideas are mere interpretations of the gods thanks to your gift.

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Just so the Muse. She first makes men inspired, and then through these inspired ones others share in the enthusiasm, and a chain is formed, for the epic poets, all the good ones, have their excellence, not from art, but are inspired, possessed, and thus they utter all these admirable poems (Ion).

Now, while I sit here with a clenched-tooth grin recalling the various people who have shared the belief that art and literature are superfluous and of little value to society, I must remember my own experiences as a creative individual: inspiration is true enough – that single, brilliant idea or premise holding a piece together – but as a creative writer, I view poetry, prose, etc. as a process…

It is a process that requires long hours, multiple revisions, and work. That “precious revelation” holds a weight of its own of course, but it takes training and technique to turn that revelation into a literary experience that is worthwhile (41). And with the mention of worth, the question of value comes up. We are made to ask: Is art practical? Does it need to be? What is of value? What is useful? (today’s world seems to be straying farther and farther away from the arts). Socrates’ aim at answering this, however, creates the infamous dichotomy.

Through Plato’s depiction, Socrates acts on his dualistic tendencies and splits the human soul into two – the rational and the emotional – by asking: “Then that part of the soul which has an opinion contrary to measure can hardly be the same with that which has an opinion in accordance to measure?” By which we are supposed to answer, “Certainly.” Further Socrates asks, “The part of the soul which trusts to measure and calculation is likely to be the better one?” And again we are supposed to answer “Certainly” (35). But call me irrational because I get more from reading Thomas Hardy or T.S Eliot than measuring the length of a stick.

Works Cited

Plato. Republic, Book X. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 30-8. Print.

— Ion. The Critical Tradition:  Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. Trans. Lane Cooper. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 38-46. Print.