Sunday, September 21, 2008

Reading Group: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

It was because I had recently raved about it (see my review) that John chose this book, the story of Oscar de Leon, a New Jersey ghetto nerd struggling with the curse imposed by his family's history of entanglement with the repressive Dominican regime.

I had met Trevor in the street a few days before the meeting and he had raved too: definitely worth the money, he said (we usually read books in paperback, and this was an exception), absolutely flipping brilliant, wonderful the way the story (told in the main by street-wise Yunior who befriends Oscar at the request of his own girlfriend, Oscar's elder sister, Elizabeth) is developed in a non-linear way - it makes it all so real, and exciting the way certain information only comes out later, and Trevor had only one criticism which was that he was so hooked he felt he was reading it too quickly and was missing stuff - a point with which I agreed.

So I was a bit surprised when John reported that he was never really engaged by the book in this way. I had noticed that he read it in a piecemeal way, being very busy with other things, so it's possible that he didn't give it appropriate attention, but in any case I was very interested to hear what everyone else thought.

On the whole people thought the same as Trevor and me. They had been gripped, and most people, like me, were particularly bowled over by the narrative voice of the novel and suspected that Yunior's voice was very close to that of the author, since there are frequent footnotes explaining the history of the Dominican Republic, and indeed of the composition of the novel itself, which are delivered in the same voice. As a result, Clare said that she had been hooked by these footnotes, unlike those in Kiss of the Spiderwoman, which had bored her silly: these seemed, unlike those, an integral part of the novel, essential to its structure. Jenny agreed, but she said she had a slight problem in that as a result she wasn't sure how how factual were their historical details. Trevor said that he felt that Junot Diaz had set out particularly to educate people about the DR with this novel, and so we could take them as truly historical, and people then agreed, and Clare, Jenny and Ann said what an amazing experience it had been to discover from it this history which is generally unknown and unacknowledged. I said that I really loved the way that the footnotes and the novel itself (which is in fact dedicated to Elizabeth de Leon) played with the ideas of fact and fiction in a way that was searingly appropriate, thematically, for the slippery realities created by the political situation described - at which John drew attention to the amazing symbol in the novel of the faceless person, and people chorused accord.

Clare said that she loved the way the different stories of the characters were woven together in a non-linear, indeed backwards way: the way that you get the stories of the children and then the story of the mother, and after that the story of the grandfather, and in the telling of each the previous stories take on new meanings and contours. Jenny strongly agreed. She said that when she read the daughter's story she thought the mother was a bitch, but then when she read the mother's tragic story her eyes were opened, and it was great to have these changing perspectives.

The big surprise for me was Doug's reaction. He had been pretty quiet up to now, but now he said that he agreed with us about much of this, in particular he thought like John that the women were brilliantly done and that the story of Oscar's mother was especially moving. But unlike us, he had found Yunior's voice - which we had found so authentic - fake, affected and modish in its streetwise nature. What? We stared at him open-mouthed. But what about the fact that we felt it was pretty close to the voice of the author (especially as I had said that it was also like the overall voice of Diaz's short stories in Drown)? Doug said, Well, in any case he didn't find the character of Oscar at all convincing. What? Our mouths dropped open further. He was a caricature of a nerd, Doug said, and come to that, so was Yunior, a caricature of a streetwise guy, picking up the girls, talking like he did... And he found the story of Oscar's bullying at school and university so parochial compared to the extreme stories of his mother and grandfather.

We were staggered. First, we pointed out that the whole point is that Oscar's plight draws him back tragically into that political situation. As for the portrayal of those two characters, we had no answer except to say that we had found them both utterly convincing, and Oscar's plight as a bullied nerd as moving as Doug had found it unmoving. Doug said, Well what about when that Goth girl befriends Oscar, that was totally unconvincing, how would a Goth want to be seen dead with Oscar? Clare said, because he was safe, because she could have the kinds of discussions with him she couldn't have with her Goth friends or her boyfriend, but Doug said that his friend had a daughter who was a Goth and she wouldn't be seen dead with anyone outside her own Goth circle. I said, Well, there are Goths and there are Goths and Trevor and Jenny said that people can dress up as Goths for all sorts of reasons, sometimes only because they want to dress like that. But this was getting away from the book and onto life and Clare pulled the discussion back by saying that she felt you could identify with Oscar, surely, if you had ever experienced some kind of bullying or even at least thought you had. And she didn't think that Yunior was a caricature because he did precisely that, identified with Oscar at moments which the rest of us agreed were very moving.

Then Trevor said that he had a hunch that Diaz himself was probably both characters, that he had split himself in two - the wiseguy and the nerd - to tell this story, a point which we all found astute. This seemed for a moment to prove Doug's point, but the fact remained that everyone beside Doug found the depiction of these two characters nevertheless convincing and moving.

After which, we had an impassioned discussion about bullying...

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

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