Thursday, October 2, 2008

Love Outside the Time of +1 Cholera

It may well be The Dork Masterpiece. Not a masterpiece dorkily told or a masterpiece of dork subject matter, but a masterpiece of the yearning dork heart, its inability to assimilate into a world of social ease, to be happy about anything without worrying about it. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz's 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, recounts the life of that one well-meaning incomplete guy that everyone knew (or was) in grade school, high school or college.

Told by his best friend Yunior and his sister Lola, Oscar's story evokes instant familiarity, empathy and pity. You never see Oscar with a woman, not because he fears or disdains them but because he feels for them a breadth of love and reverence that overawes even so-called "pussy-hound" Yunior. Your minor setbacks are his wrenching agonies; his isolation comes not from feeling coldly but too well. Oscar is every high school kid you knew who never won because he tried too hard and tried too hard because he never won. Wound so tight that the only thing that can loosen him up is a love reciprocated, his tension is palpably off-putting to others. He can't relax enough and let love come to him, but only love could get him to relax.

His body works against him. Oscar is fat; so fat that, when Yunior gets him to exercise, a little kid yells, "Look, Mom, that guy's taking his planet out for a run." Confronted by a world in which his ungainliness and unattractiveness is flung back at him with derision, he instead creates his own. Like so many intelligent and/or overweight kids, Oscar discovers genre fiction — sci-fi and fantasy — role-playing games and writing. He can't mold his body and psyche into the world as it is, so he immerses himself in Tolkein, Heinlein, Alan Moore, the X-Men and his own short stories, where he can mold worlds to fit himself or mold himself to fit his imagination. But this too works against him in a way.

His peers, like most high school students, recognize these books and authors as talismans of Terminal Dorkiness, the refuge of those for whom suave reality will always be as inaccessible as the inside of a trim pair of pants. His withdrawal from the world becomes exacerbated by others' willingness to recognize it and encourage it. As if to ward off others, Oscar accidentally employs as a barrier the language he uses so deftly to open new worlds. Florid and precise, educated, imaginative and referential: it is ineluctably and painfully the diction of the supernerd. No three words used when fourteen will do — it is courtly when it should be curt and cool. Yunior describes the ambition that brings it to the surface:
The real irony was that you never met a kid who wanted a girl so fucking bad. I mean, shit, I thought I was into females, but no one, and I mean no one, was into them the way Oscar was. To him they were the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, the DC and the Marvel. Homes had it bad; couldn't so much as see a cute girl without breaking into shakes. Developed crushes out of nothing—must have had at least two dozen high-level ones that first semester alone. Not that any of these shits ever came to anything. How could they? Oscar's idea of G was to talk about role-playing games! How fucking crazy is that? (My favorite was the day on the E bus when he informed some hot morena, If you were in my game, I would give you an eighteen Charisma!)

I tried to give advice, I really did. Nothing too complicated. Like, Stop hollering at strange girls on the street, and don't bring up the Beyonder any more than necessary. Did he listen? Of course not! Trying to talk sense to Oscar about girls was like trying to throw rocks at Unus the Untouchable. Dude was impenetrable. He'd hear me out and then shrug. Nothing else has any efficacy, I might as well be myself.

But yourself sucks!

It is, lamentably, all I have.
Beyond a familiar portrait of the awkward friend everyone has had, the story also relies on exquisite language. Díaz's dialogue and narration dip seamlessly into street Spanish, formal English, hip-hop rhythm and the world of comics, sci-fi and fantasy. Yunior's chapters snap with swagger, sexual confidence, brotherly masculinity and emotional doubt. Lola's chapters exude a softer, searching language that drops sharply into the frustrated, sexual and profane. Each voice echoes its counterparts' regret and shares its own.

It's in this respect that Díaz's language succeeds so well, because the plot of Oscar Wao descends into the same lugubrious reconstruction of a shattered family featured in both Absalom, Absalom! and One Hundred Years of Solitude. The process of explaining how Oscar died, how his family came to be — how, indeed, they suffered far greater than he did — elucidates the counterpart to his own incompleteness: the agony of the Dominican diaspora driven outward by the boots of the Trujillato. In the first of countless poignant and funny footnotes, Yunior explains:
For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history: Trujillo, one of the twentieth century's most infamous dictators, ruled the Dominican Republic between 1930 and 1961 with an implacable ruthless brutality. A portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulato who bleached his skin, wore platform shoes, and had a fondness for Napoleon-era haberdashery, Trujillo (also known as El Jefe, the Failed Cattle Thief, and Fuckface) came to control nearly every aspect of the DR's political, cultural, social, and economic life through a potent (and familiar) mixture of violence, intimidation, massacre, rape, co-optation, and terror; treated the country like it was a plantation and he was the master. At first glance, he was just your prototypical Latin American caudillo, but his power was terminal in ways that few historians or writers have ever truly captured or, I would argue, imagined. He was our Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator, a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up.
Against this background, Oscar's grandparents are murdered; his mother rises and falls and then flees to New York. Oscar's family and their ancestral land is Sutpen's Hundred set ablaze; the Dominican Republic is the town of Macondo writ frightfully large. Only Díaz has no need of Faulkner's obsessive obscurantism or Marquez's magical realism. The Trujillato obfuscated truth more powerfully than any literary circumlocution, and the power of El Jefe Rafael Leonidas conjured supernatural unrealities of suspicion, torture and death. The language of sci-fi comes to the fore because only its imagination can grasp the Trujillato as something that actually existed in a physical world.

Yunior and Lola pore over Oscar's writings and hang on their great aunt's memories like Quentin Compson piecing together the Sutpen history and Aureliano Babilonia deciphering Melquíades' manuscript. They decipher and interpolate their family's pain and their regrets, compiling the history of three generations presented in the novel. The end, as the title discloses, can't possibly be happy. Perhaps it is fukú, the Dominican concept of curses explained at the book's outset. Perhaps Oscar felt bound to his quest like the Fellowship of the Ring. Maybe simple fate joins Oscar's quest to victims of diaspora yearning to return.

Díaz's novel is both funny and heartbreaking. He renders the tragedy of a people broken and scattered to American ghettoes and a young man desperately hoping to find his heart in another with equal vibrancy and pity. His two narrators evoke distinct voices and experiences with shared understanding and love. Readers unfamiliar with Latin American history will find it explained with humor and horror, gaining an understanding of a people who lost a home yet haven't yet fully found a new one. Almost anyone will see a classmate or even themselves depicted with tenderness, fumbling and heroic, pitiable and exemplary. The people of Díaz's book are dorky and beautiful, in spite of their world's terrors, and because of their own clumsy, wondrous imperfection.

Rating: 5
Fans of sci-fi, fantasy and comics will doubtless derive extra pleasure in seeing familiar characters and storylines referenced in a book covering such serious topics. They might also enjoy seeing friends' or their own adolescence described with warmth. Everyone else will find an unquestionably excellent book.