Wao! So, recently we’ve been talking about why we read less fiction than when we were younger. Gone are the days I did nothing but read Thomas Hardy hour upon hour - even day after day - without end. Our collective reasons for reading less were things like ‘not enough time’, ‘who needs books? This is a golden era of television, you fool’, ‘books are too heavy’ (?) and unsurprisingly, ‘the internet’. We put the above inferred causes to scientific testing and the results were clear - turns out the internet is the chief culprit. We’re jumped-up monkeys with ADHD is all. Can’t focus on a book no longer. We’re neurologically doomed. But - take heart - it’s not our fault.
Last week, an article was published in Slate which said the reason we’re so internet-addled is because receiving an email, or finding a cool new website, etc, feels like getting some sort of abstract reward - we're hardwired to think that deposits in our inboxes are things we want - so our dopamine circuit goes nuts when it happens. This reward-seeking behaviour is why we spend so much time online. In contrast, novels don’t offer the same sweet punch of satisfaction. In this theory’s favour, I can verify that when I received this email in my yahoo inbox yesterday, from HOVEROUND:GET YOUR FREEDOM BACK WITH A POWER WHEELCHAIR, Eli! my dopamine circuits went absolutely mental.
Having said that, I don’t think the promise of power wheelchairs etc are the only reason for us slacking off on novel-reading. A lot of people I know think novels are just serious and boring and didactic. Yeah, a lot of novels are. But not all. Not every novelist is Charles Dickens or Samuel Richardson. As I'll now try to prove...(Though if there are any hardcore non-fictioneers out there, state your case!)
Anyway, due to the above two factors, it's been an uphill slog to find a novel awesome enough a significant number of DABC’ers will put down the internet for and read. You had young adult fiction, eloquent perverts and obese godheads thrown you way, and you were like, piss off, you schmuck, I’m too busy getting dopamine fixes updating my Facebook status. Yeah, me too. But then Junot Diaz came along to save the day… his ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ was, I don’t think it’s too hubristic to say, the DABC’s breakout novel. Here’s why: I spoke to four whole people who’d read it! And I proslyetised it to thirteen more who said they would! If Trujillo can capture one nation under a narrative, imagine what the DABC could do. But enough about fascist fantasies. What was the difference? Why did 'Wao' work?
Many reasons. First, unlike the massive miserabilist mountain of boo hoo me novels sitting beside it in every bookshop, it was fun. It really was. It was as funny, i dunno, Arrested Development (don't chew me out on this one, it's late and anything - of a certain calibre - will do). Yet it wa horrifically tragic too, so it won on both counts. Most people can sell you only one or the other, tragedy or comedy. Demonstrating the two are indivisible was a fine, and brave (because it‘s so difficult to pull off) thing to do. I wasn’t expecting to be played like that - in fact, I didn‘t know what to expect from the whole novel.
All I knew when I started 'Wao' was that it was a Pulitzer-winning, 11-years-in-the-making story about a fat Dominican science fiction geek. Ahh, my naievety. Once you get into it, horizons expand infinitely. No spoilers here, just props. First, there’s the dictatorship. The anchoring in a part of 20th century history I - I don’t know about you (pl.) - knew nothing about. Nothing about the Trujillo Era - about, as Diaz puts it, ’the asphyxiation of a whole generation of young Dominicans’…or that Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina was ‘the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated’. So that was an excellent wake-up call...being eye-deep in a dictatorship I'd not even known about before was absolutely fascinating.
And then there’s the immigrant stories, the opening out from Oscar’s nerdery, the ’moronic inferno’ that is his school, etc, to the backstory of his family, and before you know it you’re in the Cabral vortex, and it’s not only Oscar and Lolita whose lives we give a shit about, it’s Belicia and then Abelard, and La Inca too. Didn’t see any of that coming, nor the way the chronology would weave from past to present and keep us guessing. So impressive. It takes chops to encompass so much so smoothly.
Excuse the lack of coherence here - it's late and there's so much to discuss in 'Wao' that things are
gonna get tangential at some point. Which is why it's already time for some homegrown reader
reception theory. Specifically, the theory of self-identification - which is totally obvious, I guess - that the reason we read/watch/anticipate & enjoy certain things is because they tell us about who we think we are or who we’d like to be. This worked with 'Wao'...at least, I thought so. I saw so many people I know kaleidoscoping around in Oscar, Lola and Yunior's personalities that I enjoyed reading about their lives best of all. There’s a little bit of most of us in each of them…and there’s pleasure in reading about the lives of *very* distant alter-egos. It's not only about the nascent narcissism of self-identification though. Diaz also says something in a ’Narrative’ magazine interview about compassion, which is the other side of self-identification - to feel interested in these characters, you can come at it on the level that you, too, have lived in a dorm room with someone totally different to you, and at some point you've felt like an outsider, or you can try to understand how and why each of these people feels vulnerable, tough, confused, scared, and then shit goes down for them and you feel engaged, completely absorbed, when it happens…that’s having compassion. Then there’s the semi-alien world of Beli which requires even more compassion. And…fuck…Abelard. Diaz asks a lot of a good reader. More than can be broken down by this lame identification-compassion spectrum which is actually bullshit and I renounce right now. To sum up: it’s not boring.
Okay - anyone reading this far gets a reward, cos this is the internets! Let's talk about pum pum! Cos one of life’s most intriguing contrasts gets a going over - the world that revolves, as Diaz says so sweetly above, around the alchemy of pussy (such a phrase!). At Rutgers, you’ve got the pum pum mad player Yunior (thanks Jake, btw), and soppy fantasist Oscar rooming together in a dysfunctional but bittersweet bromance. You get the contrast between El hyper-masculismo and the boy who has to be begged to stop writing his space opera trilogy so he can do something about his weight and maybe, just maybe, get laid. And this is so sad and funny. Add to this Yunior’s spastic inability to get it together with the awesome, ferocious and beautiful Lola, and he digs himself into unforeseen depths of sad. It gets tragic. Cos Yunior is cool. I kind of admired him. He gets the girls, and he…um…you know, gets the girls. Well done him. And then I read something Diaz said in ’Narrative’ magazine about Yunior:
“Yunior looks at Oscar and sees a person who can expose himself, be himself, be vulnerable, often too vulnerable. Yunior doesn’t have any of that. He always wears a mask and is incapable of taking it off.”
That’s why he can’t get his shit together and man up for Lola. She got to him and he couldn‘t deal. Sad. So you get the hyper masculine unable to man up and be vulnerable, and you get the soppiest boy in the world unable to man up and be cool. (Note to certain men: don’t be Yuniors. Man up. Note to all men: Don‘t be Oscars either. Unless you want).
Um…where was I? Oh yeah. That the novel is jokes. Cos Diaz also said (somewhere…I forget where) how much fun it was to write the Yunior/Oscar banter. The man for whom its always pum pum o’clock and his pathetically uncopacetic roommate. I hoovered this up. It’s like Peep Show, but with a New Jersey accent, a Dominican swagger, and a way more nerdy David Mitchell, if that‘s possible. Here’s Yunior:
(p.173) “Did I try to help him with his girl situation? Share some of my playerly wisdom? Of course I did.
Problem was, when it came to the mujeres my roommate was like no-one on the planet. On the one hand, he had the worst case of no-toto-it is I’d ever seen. The last person to even come close was this poor Salvadoran kid I knew in high school who was burned all over his face, couldn’t get no girls ever because he looked like the Phantom of the Opera. Well: Oscar had it worse than him. At least Jeffrey could claim an honest medical condition. What could Oscar claim? That it was Sauron’s fault? Dude weighed 307 pounds, for fuck’s sake! Talked like a Star Trek computer! 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…Developed crushes out of nothing…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 favourite 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!)”
Like John B. mentioned, you could see that Yunior’s voice might get wearing. But I really liked it. I like boys to be all urbandictionary.com. And if you tire of Yunior, you get the other stories - which there’s no time to go into detail here, but someone else, if you want to talk about them, please do - the stories which make the novel truly epic - Belicia’s and Abelard‘s. Man, I think I read 'Wao' too quickly the first time because when I finished, I was like, ‘amazing, but too much happens’. Then I read it again. Slowly. Not only then can you savour the language (Diaz is a worship-worthy wordsmith), you’ll also realise, as the Holman pointed out, how he creates lives by giving you the details you don’t expect - not the burn or the rapes, but, say, the story of Jack Pujols. The gangster. The boardwalk boy. The relationships that mattered and that taught the characters how to love and hate and forgive. And that they were fuku’d. This is really strong stuff. And it all culminates in Oscar finally, maybe, possibly, getting some (no giveaways here - read the novel)…but then history and myth come crashing down and fuku shit up. So you get what happened on the edges of lives, the fringe stories, and then you get like this meteor plummeting down into the middle of it all. Repeatedly.
Chin wanted to discuss the use of sci-fi and comics in the novel. Maybe this would start with Diaz’s explicit parallel of the Antilles with the kind of burnt-out apocalyptic chaos you’d find in sci-fi dystopias. I can see it’s a great reflection…the ruined cities, the paranoid citizenry, the maniac overlord. My only tiny problem with how this mirror of sci-fi chaos was spun out, notwithstanding some really funny invocations of the Fantastic Four at crucially tragic moments, was that some of it seemed to be obvious. As in, many SF tropes are so disappointingly binary in the first place that lassoing them into metaphor for the story (eg. ‘The Darkness’, ‘the phantom zone’, 'the immortals', 'the apotheosis’) doesn’t do much in the way of illumination. I felt they were flat, rather than expansive, metaphors. (although I have aped such usage here cos i'm lazy, i mean, meta). In 'Wao', though, it’s still beautifully done. It’s original and makes brilliant sense - why not parallel the Trujillo regime with leg-shaking, awe-inspiring, cosmic fear-inducing sci-fi/comic tropes? People thought Trujillo was superhuman (a ‘cosmic force’) anyway. And the curse, the fuku, is always a great story thing. Who doesn't get off on a good curse? Actually, pre-empting this criticism, Diaz said in an interview in good old Slate:
(page 2)"No one can write a straightforward political novel about the Trujillato and capture its phantasmagorical power. That's another reason I had to go hard-core nerd. Because without curses and alien mongooses and Sauron and Darkseid, the Trujillato cannot be accessed, eludes our "modern" minds. We need these fictional lenses, otherwise It we cannot see."
Dunno if you'd agree with that. Up for debate.
So...it’s been rumoured Diaz gets about 100 emails a month, all written (poor fucker) in Yunior-style, saying ‘please share the secrets of writerly success, yo’…to which Diaz replies: ‘Accept that it‘s a tough road to choose. Good luck’. (I paraphrase. Okay, I invent. Never mind). What he's doing is light years beyond making a tough choice, though. It's not perfect, but for a first novel it's peerless right now (or not?). Whether it will become part of an early 21st century canon and go the distance is something I’d love to discuss. Will it slip through our fingers? I think Diaz is a phenomenal writer. It was only when I stopped zooming through the story and started paying attention to its construction, to the elegance of the way its layers fell on one another, and to its words and how funny and perfectly chosen they were before I realised quite how amazing it was. As a still-alienated lit-otaku, I have a feeling what I just said - about the words -will pass some people by, but that doesn’t matter. That's just me being obsessed by one particular form of communication. It's nothing. As long as people read 'Wao' and enjoy it then we don’t need to give a monkeys about the intricacies of each others‘ opinions.
Except that’s the point. So please, please read and get involved! Get intricate!