The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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“You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.” 

I finally finished Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Aside from the fact that I thought the book was an incredible read, I also chose to review it because I follow Junot Diaz on Facebook (and you should too, he’s amazing), and he recently posted this link pointing out that ‘close reading’ of multicultural works increases racial literacy. So here it goes.

Diaz brilliantly and effortlessly blends Spanish, elvish, and Jersey slang to create a dynamic and interesting read that is a linguistic metaphor for the complexity and diversity of his characters. The story is of the Cabral family, part of the Dominican Diaspora to New Jersey as a result of the rise of the dictator, Trujillo. Reading Wao, I was immediately struck by the similarities to Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Like Garcia Marquez, Diaz tells the story of a whole country through the history of one family, with subtle notes of magical realism woven in. It’s impossible to understand the story of Oscar Wao without first knowing a little Dominican history. Diaz provides lengthy footnotes in order to fill the reader in:

“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.”

I chose the above quote because it’s a perfect example of Diaz’s unique writing style. Some critiqued Diaz’s frequent use of Spanish throughout the novel, saying it distracted from the message of the book and interrupted the flow of text if you had to stop and look things up. Diaz responded to this criticism in the most Diaz-way possible, and better than I ever could by saying, “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they think we’re taking over.” 

The novel itself defies simple summary. The story is told mostly from the perspective of Yunior–a pseudo stand-in for Diaz himself, a sly Dominicano who can’t stay faithful to Oscar’s sister, Lola de Leon, who he is desperately in love with. But it shifts through time and place, and is told from multiple perspectives, including Beli Cabral, Oscar and Lola’s mother; Beli’s father, Abelard Cabral; La Inca, Oscar and Lola’s grandmother, and Lola herself. History has a way of repeating itself in the novel, another ode to Garcia Marquez, and characters are doomed to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors. Diaz attributes this to fuku, (It’s perfectly fine if you don’t believe in these “superstitions.” In fact, it’s better than fine—it’s perfect. Because no matter what you believe, fukú believes in you.)

“They say it came from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fukú americanus, or more colloquially, fukú – generally a curse or doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World.

No matter what its name or provenance, it is believed that the arrival of Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed fukú on the world, and we’ve all been in the shit ever since.”

Wao can be dark at times. Stories of atrocities committed by the Trujillato are ever the more terrible because they are true. Oscar’s depression and the Dominican diaspora are always in the back of the reader’s mind. In spite of this, Wao is really funny at times. Diaz weaves in sci-fi references to maximize comedic effect: “Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to.”

One of my favorite parts of Wao, is that it taught me more about Dominican history than I ever learned in any history class. Sadly, I don’t think I received even the “mandatory two seconds” of Dominican history in any of my history classes. The novel was a stark reminder of how much our public education lacks in telling history when it’s inconvenient to the narrative of American exceptionalism. The history of Hispanola is fascinating, complex, and crucial to the understanding of the harms of colonization and imperialism. In summary, Yunior says it best, “No one, alas, more oppressive than the oppressed.”

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A Visit from the Goon Squad: An Analysis

 

dsc027821I recently finished Jennifer Egan’s critically acclaimed and Pulitzer prize-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, and I had some conflicting thoughts about it, so I thought I would come here and set my thoughts into writing. Overall, I really enjoyed the book, which is really a collection of separate narratives artfully woven together and interconnected through time and space. The “goon squad” in the book is time, (“‘Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?’ Scotty shook his head. ‘The goon won.'”) And time is a recurring theme throughout the book, where characters are shown in different parts throughout their life, and where sudden flash forwards make small interactions more poignant. It’s a difficult book to summarize with its non-linear timeline and constant changes from narrative perspective, moving from  third-person, to first-person, to one chapter narrated entirely in powerpoint slides (one of my favorites). And while I wouldn’t call Egan’s writing magical realism, there is an almost supernatural way that characters’ lives intersect, and also a haunting poetic beauty to some of her chapters, each one of which could be read on its own as a short story, but that become all the more poignant when viewed as a connected whole.

When ‘Goon Squad’ is good, it’s really good. Egan profiles a woman named Sasha, and you see her evolution from a small girl growing up in a home with domestic abuse, to a troubled teen selling herself in Naples, to a Columbia student coping with a suicidal best friend, to a record executive’s assistant with a secret penchant for stealing, to a married mother with two children. The Naples chapter is one of the best, narrated by Sasha’s uncle Ted–sent to Naples by Sasha’s mother to find her and bring her home. Here are two of my favorite passages from the Naples chapter:

1. “Yet each disappointment Ted felt in his wife, each incremental deflation, was accompanied by a seizure of guilt; many years ago, he had taken the passion he felt for Susan and folded it in half, so he no longer had a drowning, helpless feeling when he glimpsed her beside him in bed: her ropy arms and soft, generous ass. Then he’d folded it in half again, so when he felt desire for Susan, it no longer brought with it an edgy terror of never being satisfied. Then in half again, so that feeling desire entailed no immediate need to act. Then in half again, so he hardly felt it. His desire was so small in the end that Ted could slip it inside his desk or a pocket and forget about it, and this gave him a feeling of safety and accomplishment, of having dismantled a perilous apparatus that might have crushed them both. Susan was baffled at first, then distraught; she’d hit him twice across the face; she’d run from the house in a thunderstorm and slept at a motel; she’d wrestled Ted to the bedroom floor in a pair of black crotchless underpants. But eventually a sort of amnesia had overtaken Susan; her rebellion and hurt had melted away, deliquesced into a sweet, eternal sunniness that was terrible in the way that life would be terrible, Ted supposed, without death to give it gravitas and shape. He’d presumed at first that her relentless cheer was mocking, another phase in her rebellion, until it came to him that Susan had forgotten how things were between them before Ted began to fold up his desire; she’d forgotten and was happy — had never not been happy — and while all of this bolstered his awe at the gymnastic adaptability of the human mind, it also made him feel that his wife had been brainwashed. By him.”

2. “On another day more than twenty years after this one, after Sasha had gone to college and settled in New York; after she’d reconnected on Facebook with her college boyfriend and married late (when Beth had nearly given up hope) and had two children, one of whom was slightly autistic; when she was like anyone, with a life that worried and electrified and overwhelmed her, Ted long divorced–a grandfather–would visit Sasha at home in the California desert. He would step through a living room strewn with the flotsam of her young kids and watch the western sun blaze through a sliding glass door. And for an instant he would remember Naples: sitting with Sasha in her tiny room; the jolt of surprise and delight he’d felt when the sun finally dropped into the center of her window and was captured inside her circle of wire. Now he turned to her, grinning. Her hair and face were aflame with orange light. ‘See,’ Sasha muttered, eyeing the sun. ‘It’s mine.'”

The second excerpt, really shows Egan as a writer. How she switches forwards and backwards deftly within the same paragraph. I particularly loved her use of “flotsam of her young kids” which allows the reader to picture exactly what the floor would look like, without taking away from the main point of the sunset.

My second favorite chapter is the powerpoint chapter, narrated by Sasha’s daughter, Alison. In it Alison details her brother Lincoln’s obsession with rock and roll pauses. The best page is a flow chart called,

“Lincoln Wants to Say/Ends Up Saying:

‘I love you, Dad.’ –> Dad is from Wisconsin. –> I love music. –> Dad loves me. –> Steve Miller is from Wisconsin. –> The Steve Miller Band was popular fifty-something years ago. –> One of their biggest hits was ‘Fly Like an Eagle.’ –> ‘Hey Dad, there’s a partial silence at the end of ‘Fly Like an Eagle,’ with a sort of rushing sound in the background that I think is supposed to be the wind, or maybe time rushing past!’ ‘Good to know, Linc,’ Dad says.”

Egan does a fantastic job of capturing the workings of the mind of a child with autism, and also showing the love that Alison feels towards her brother, and her sadness that her father doesn’t understand him. Sometimes less is more.

Some of my other favorite chapters were narrated by Rhea, a troubled punk rock teen self-conscious about her freckles, (“Hey, Lou goes. He leans down so our faces are together, and stares straight into my eyes. He looks tired, like someone walked on his skin and left footprints. He goes, The world is full of shitheads, Rhea. Don’t listen to them–listen to me. And I know that Lou is one of those shitheads. But I listen.”) and by Scotty, a washed-up slide guitarist (and former friend of Rhea) who catches a fish in the Hudson river and brings it to the swanky office of his former-friend-turned-record-executive Bennie Salazaar.

Here’s a quote from Scotty’s chapter:

“I decided not to think about Bennie. There’s a fine line between thinking about somebody and thinking about not thinking about somebody, but I have the patience and the self-control to walk that line for hours–days, if I have to.

After one week of not thinking about Bennie–thinking so much about not thinking about Bennie that there was barely any room left in my brain for thoughts of any other kind–I decided to write him a letter.”

And also:

“‘I came here for this reason: I want to know what happened between A and B.’ Bennie seemed to be waiting for more. ‘A is when we were both in the band, chasing the same girl. B is now.’ I knew instantly that it had been the right move to bring up Alice. I’d said something literally, yes, but underneath that I’d said something else: we were both a couple of asswipes, and now only I’m an asswipe; why? And underneath that, something else: once an asswipe, always an asswipe. And deepest of all: You were the one chasing. But she picked me.”

Scotty is one of the tragic characters. He is there to show us that not everyone makes it out of a rough adolescence, a mother who committed suicide. But even though Scotty is tragic, his chapter contains a dark humor that keeps the reader from fully falling down with Scotty into the pit.

I could go on about the good parts of Goon Squad: the way that Egan succeeds in capturing the mood of the “Forgotten generation” (those rarely discussed Gen X’ers). The novel is both deep and extremely readable. The chapters are heavy, but you can breeze through them at the same time.  However, I do have some complaints:

The last chapter, a vision of the future, is my least favorite.  I found Egan’s representation of the near-future to be comically bad. It was all about how everyone is “selling out” (paid by record execs to hype artists to their friends) and there’s a lot of handwringing about the perceived overuse of technology, “Everybody sounds stoned because they’re emailing people the whole time they’re talking to you.” Real original, Jennifer. To me, these themes fall flat and seem petty compared to her more compelling statements about the ruthless march of time and finding quiet redemption, so I find it sad that that’s what Egan seemed to choose to end on. There’s also a jab at teeny bopper fandom, where Egan satirizes that the record industry now caters to infants as the industry trendsetters (the infants are called “pointers” because they buy music on their parents’ tablet devices). It’s a petty satire that just comes across as the jaded ramblings of a bitter old person–the literary equivalent of–kids these days don’t know good music if it hit them in the face, blah blah blah. And it also doesn’t jive with the realism in the rest of the novel, the least realistic part being that there will even be a record industry with any kind of influence. Also, Egan’s vision of future textspeak is quite cheesy, with people saying things like: Nu job in th wrks–big $ pos. pls kEp opn mind. Seems more like a vision of the future from a person who still uses a hotmail account (everyone knows future textspeak will consist entirely of emojis, duhhh).

There are a few other chapters that seem more outrageous and less realistic as well, and those were the ones I felt fell flat. The rise and fall of a famed publicist, Dolly AKA La Doll,  and her 9-year old queen bee daughter Lulu seem more like caricatures than characters. Some of the more punk rock moments also felt a little contrived (OMG, they’re doing COCAINE, how EDGY). I didn’t love the chapter for Bennie’s wife where she’s devastated when she realizes he’s cheating on her, yet again, when she thought he was done with his philandering ways (GASP). That’s the least punk rock thing ever, she should go out and cheat on him back, or at least keep being a badass at tennis and not a give a fuck; instead she passively crumples into the fetal position in her lawn like some sad housewife, circa 1975 (you’re better than that, Rebecca–you don’t even like him that much!) 

Lastly, Bennie Salazaar himself is kind of a snooze: becoming predictably jaded and nostalgic for the “good old days of rock and roll” and he’s a predictably lame father who predictably loves his son, but predictably doesn’t know to express it. Egan does include one satisfying moment of self-awareness for Bennie:

“He remembered his mentor Lou Kline, telling him in the nineties that rock and roll had peaked at Monterey Pop. They’d been at Lou’s house in LA with its waterfalls, the pretty girls Lou always had, his car collection out front, and Bennie had looked into his idol’s famous face and thought, You’re finished. Nostalgia was the end–everyone knew that.”