I Read Oscar Wao

It took me forever to read this book. I'm not proud of it. It's the reason I have refused to update that sidebar, because the fact that this book cover was still posted under "Reading Up" was my punishment of public shame. I've always read slower than I should, and I thought maybe book status updates such as Goodreads or my sidebar would give me enough pressure to plow through more novels in shorter time. I was wrong. I am the worst of all things.

It's amazing what 20+ hour drives up the west coast will do, though. In truth, I should have knocked out this book in a week or two, even at a relaxed, casual pace. But what kept happening is that I would read the first section, about 40 pages or so, and then stop. For a couple of weeks. Inevitably, I'll want to start over, and read the first 40 pages, and then stop again. It was a cycle of forgetting and restarting and breaking too long out of lack of discipline. It is a pathetic thing.

I wanted to read The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao because it was a Pulitzer Prize winner and decidedly "ethnic" fiction. Writing good work focusing on non-American culture has always been a mystery to me. I had somehow convinced myself to leave ethnicity out of my work, because I viewed it as unrelatable and non-universal, which brought me great displeasure. Race and ethnicity is, as you may already know, one of my favorite topics. I love them shits. But I couldn't bring myself to write fiction about it in a way that I think the average reader would like. So I read Wao to see how it should be done.

It's never the changes we want that change everything.

I'm glad I plowed through that opening segment on the road. What starts as an introduction of sorts to our lonely, socially inept, lovelorn geek antagonist, suddenly takes a wild perspective turn in the form of a flashback, and all of a sudden you're reading some serious tense Caribbean historical drama. It is a powerful perspective shift, and that's not the only turn they take. It's a hard left and a hard right, juking and inducing whiplash like an old wooden roller coaster. The tone reflects these seismic shifts, and the effect pays off. After spending time in the midst of a brutal cane field beating, there is no greater relief than being dropped into youthful braggadocio literature. It is a delicious exhale when you get to escape the intense darkness.It turns out, one of the most entertaining ways to handle new cultures is to inject it with a bravado and personable voice. Diaz is merciless with footnotes, but it's a good thing all these footnotes read like tangents from the aunt/uncle that plays the role of uproarious storyteller ("Did I ever tell you about the time...?!") One of the things Oscar Wao does is draw a line connecting Science Fiction and the Dominican Republic. Because for those of us that don't speak Spanish, we're going to need to Google Translate lines pretty frequently. And for those of us that aren't well versed in 60 years of nerd culture, we're going to need to look up Triffids  and This Island Earth and Appleseed. Nerd culture and Dominican culture, to outsiders, are on equal levels of enigma.

...when he thought about the way she laughed, as though she owned the air around her, his heart thudded inside his chest, a lonely rada.

The other interesting idea is that the DR, in it history, culture and traditions are about as Sci-Fi as you can get. To extrapolate on that theme some more, science fiction can be found in just about any culture's traditions. We tend to think of it as a white futurism sort of thing, but what non-white culture doesn't have a curse/hex fear? Or its share of supernatural events? Or it's out of this world landscapes? Or it's absurd history, ruled by demons made human, with slain heroes and dividing factions? It's all adventure, and it all feels out of touch with what we think reality should be. Sci-Fi is Fuku, is Aswang, is Anansi.

And that's kind of a beautiful sentiment, that science fiction is so organic that we grow up in it without noticing it. That Ultraman and Buck Rogers can be in the same genre as the tales of superstition that your grandmother tells you. Oscar Wao makes a good case for genre fiction in "high" culture.
...and in the gloaming of her dwindling strength there yawned a loneliness so total it was beyond death, a loneliness that obliterated all memory, the loneliness of a childhood where she'd not even had her own name.

Although the story isn't just about Oscar, it still begins and ends with him and his powerful loneliness, social ineptness, body image and obsessive escapism. It's hard to think of a nerd redemption story deep enough to win a Pulitzer. Growing that into a story about a legacy curse, spanning decades and dictators, jumping between four other points of view, helps tremendously. But even without all that grandeur, there's just so much heart to this fat nerd's yearning.
Who is surprised that in the final four months of her relationship with him there would be such an outpouring of affect? As expected: she, the daughter of the Fall, recipient of its heaviest radiations, loved atomically.

It's not a dumb love story, which is a relief, where there are star crossed lovers, and some concrete assurance of fate, and a predictable final reunion between two principal characters. Oscar approaches his crushes the way he approaches his fiction: with rolling obsession. He always finds a new way to fall and fall hard, which will ultimately be his end. In ways that I am unable yet to decode, Diaz manages not to make his loneliness a clingy, easy emotion trap. If anything, his ineptitude and resignation to the bottom of the social ladder stops you from total endearment. On some level, you are inclined to believe that Oscar is too defeated to fight for what he wants.

Still, it is a frequently beautiful piece of writing. The voice is so strong that it doesn't lend itself to clever emotional turns of phrases the way a Michael Chabon does, but in those rare moments where it does get to get high minded and writerly, it stands out.
The next day he woke up feeling like he'd been unshackled from his fat, like he'd been washed clean of his misery, and for a long time he couldn't remember why he felt this way, and then he said her name.
So how do you write "ethnic fiction?" Well, you make it necessary, you pump it full of heart, and you make it so organic that the audience has no choice but to relate. I was taught a lot about finding universality in specificity during my education, but I could never quite make it work on a racial level. I think what I learned from The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is that a culture, whether it's ethnic or not, is a character, and it should be treated with the same level of depth, understanding and personality.