Friday, 2 September 2011

Oscar Wao and Science Fiction


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is a novel of family and friendship, of fate and superstition, sacrifice and love. It is a story about the Dominican Republic (or Santa Dominica as its referred to) and New York, exile and the search for home. But most of all, it’s about Oscar, a lonely, overweight black Dominican who is lost in America, intelligent, articulate and well-read but considered uncool and shunned as a result. Oscar is the central, titular character of the novel, but he remains a rather shadowy presence, revealed through the eyes of others. His story is narrated with oracular and vernacular brio by his old college roommate, who initially cultivates a friendship of convenience with him in order to get closer to his sister Lola. He never intends the relationship to last, but events conspire to thwart his plans and ‘instead of getting him for a year, I got the motherfucker for the rest of my life’. The narrator never actually introduces himself, and we only get to hear his name, Yunior, when it is spoken by Lola, and it might not even be his given name. The men remain rather ill-defined figures in the book, and it is the women who really come to life, taking over from Yunior and narrating their own stories. Yunior is far more representative of the ideal of masculinity within Dominican culture, both at home and in the States – macho, vain and sexually voracious. Oscar, on the other hand, singularly fails to win any hearts after a brief initial success in childhood.

Evil dictator chic - Trujillo/Sauron
It is Yunior who introduces us to the Dominican concept of Fuku, an inescapable species of fate or curse akin to nemesis or bad karma. Its force can be negated or lessened by a powerful counterword or Zafa. The play between fatalistic superstition and a mythologised view of events and a defiance and refutation of such a view, the acceptance of ill-fortune and the resistance to its real causes is central to the novel and is rooted in the terrible stasis of recent Dominican history as experienced by three generations of the Cabral family: Oscar and Lola, their mother Belicia and Aunt Inca, and their grandfather Abelard. Dominica suffered for decades under the absolute power and brutal dictatorship of General Rafael Trujillo, who presided over one of the most blatant kleptocracies in the modern world. Trujillo ruled (and ruled is the word) from 1930 to 1961, and we he was finally offed in 1961, with the inevitable aid of the CIA (he’d become too embarrassing even for them) he personally owned 71% of the country’s farm land and 90% of its industry. It wasn’t long before one of his loyal supporters, Joaquin Balaguer, was helped into power and continued his model’s methods, but with rather more surface discretion. Trujillo is a malignant and fearful presence throughout the novel, his influence living on way beyond his sudden and violent death. Extensive footnotes throughout are written in the same informal narrative voice as the main story (in Yunior’s voice, in other words) and tell, with burning, sardonic anger, of some of the excesses of the Trujillo regime (and it was nothing if not excessive) and they make for horrifying reading, even thought they do not dwell on the details of the horror (hints and rumours are quite enough).

Oscar, however, is first encountered growing up on the outskirts of New York in the 1980s. He is a huge Science Fiction and Fantasy fan and sees the world through genre glasses. The novel offers many examples of Oscar’s enthusiasms, and allusions are frequently made to SF characters, books and films. Little explanation or context is given for these references, and this must make things confusing for people not conversant with the genre. However, it does make you feel a little bit privileged if you are in the know, as if you possess a secret knowledge. In a way, it is an inversion of the literary novel’s expectation that the reader will understand allusions to or pastiches of Dante, or Proust, or Shakespeare, or a whole host of other canonical figures. We’re presented with a different canon here, and if the names mean nothing to you, it probably won’t detract unduly from your understanding of the story. But you probably should read more.

Watchmen - one of Oscar's bibles
Oscar’s genre affiliations begin (as they do for so many of us) when he is young. We are told that he is terribly upset when he drops his Dr Zaius lunchbox and a scratch is permanently scored across General Urko’s face. Zaius is an oran-utan scientist and Urko a gorilla soldier in Planet of the Apes. Yunior tells us that ‘by high school his commitment to genre had become complete’. He ‘could diffentiate between a Slan, a Dorsai and a Lensman in acute detail’. These are breeds of enhanced humanity in novel series written by AE van Vogt, Gordon R Dickson and EE ‘Doc’ Smith. Oscar also ‘watched nerd British shows like Doctor Who and Blakes 7, and could tell you the difference between a Veritech fighter and a Zentraedi walker’ (they’re from a Japanese anime TV series called Robotech, apparently). His favourite films at college are John Boorman’s mythological SF parable Zardoz and the Japanese end of the world drama Virus (‘a simplistic melodrama with nothing to say’ according to Peter Nicholls in the Encylopedia of Science Fiction, but films can bear different, personal meanings to different people), both of which feature loners and outsiders. He is a fan of Alan Moore, reading Watchmen and Miracleman as they come out (probably not the latter, in fact, as it first appeared as Marvelman in the British Warrior comic), and also loves Akira.

A Dungeon module too far - Queen of the Demonweb Pits
Yunior tolerates his obsessions in high school, but considers them terminally uncool, and a major contributory factor to Oscar’s lack of success with the opposite sex. He is embarrassed when Oscar proudly turns up for the Halloween party in his Doctor Who outfit (Tom Baker, presumably, since he was the one who first made a big impact in the US). ‘Akira I could handle’, he says, anime, with its violent action and hypermodern consumer details (shiny bikes and fashionable clothes) always having been a relatively acceptable manifestation of SF. ‘Queen of the Demonweb Pits I could not’. The latter is an adventure written for the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons – sorry, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons as it is probably no longer called (and if you really want to get obscure, Oscar also plays a post-apocalyptic RPG called Gamma World, alluring ads for which used to appear on the back of the fantasy gamers magazine White Dwarf, which suggested that whatever deprivations might prevail in the radiation scarred world of the future, disco clothing was still in style). Queen of the Demonweb Pits collides the D&D sword and sorcery backdrop with an intrusion from a SF world in the form of a crashed spaceship. This meeting of disparate worlds is highly apposite given Oscar’s sense of apartness in America and his disconnection from his Dominican roots. He is a young man between worlds, drifting in space and trying to find a sense of perspective in the literature of ‘cognitive estrangement’ as the literary critic famously put it some time ago.

Samuel Delany - one of Oscar's heroes
Yunior may speak with a certain disdain of the genres which Oscar loves so dearly and to which he devotes so much time reading, watching and writing, but given that the narrative voice is largely his own, the density of SF references can only indicate a thorough personal familiarity on his own part (and similarly a wide-ranging knowledge on the part of Junot Diaz). He points out that Oscar had a notice on his college dorm door saying ‘Speak friend and enter’ and that it was ‘in fucking Elvish!’, before going on to plead ‘please don’t ask me how I know this. Please’. But know it he does, and its him and him alone who makes reference to Ursula le Guin, the Twilight Zone (Trujillo’s Dominican Republic is likened to the childhood tyranny of the It’s A Good Life episode), Marvel comics, Tolkien and many more throughout the story. For Oscar, his fantasy and SF enthusiasms are more real to him than the actual world, whose experiences are bruising. He prefers ideal worlds to the real one. Yunior notes that at college ‘his happiest moments were genre moments, like when Akira was released (1988)’. When he is recovering in hospital after his suicide attempt, he has 2 real signatures on his cast – those of Yunior and his sister Lola. ‘The rest were thoughtful consolations from Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert and Samuel Delany’.

Oscar’s immersion in SF and Yunior’s absorption of its influence through a steady (if reluctantly recognised) process of osmosis colour the way they see the world and provide a useful lens through which to regard the tyrannous and scarcely believable nature of Trujillo’s Dominica. As Yunior observes, ‘what more sci-fi than Santo Domingo? What more fantasy than the Antilles?’ Comparisons with Lord of the Rings abound, with Trujillo as the all-seeing Eye of Sauron, his reign ‘like a Caribbean Mordor’. His key henchmen are cast as Nazgul and the everyday, goonish brutes who execute his arbitrary acts of terror as orcs. The Fortaleza San Luis prison in which poor Abelard (Oscar’s grandfather) ends up is likened to Mordor, whilst the coastal city of Bani displays ‘a guardedness so Minas Tirith’. Trujillo/Sauron’s successor, the offshoot of his evil (his Saruman) is known as ‘the demon Balauguer’, a monster from beyond the story’s bounds, which suggests that its specific narrative is over, although its effects linger on. Tyranny and terror on such an all-pervasive scale, taking place on such an everyday level can sometimes best be encompassed by stepping back and viewing it from the universalised perspective of mythology. And the mythological matter of the twentieth century is best mined from SF and fantasy. Drawing such analogies from the pool of popular culture also means that they are more readily grasped by a wider populace beyond the small coterie of highly educated people who are versed in ‘proper’ literature. Oscar himself, recovering from his suicide attempt, declares ‘I’m going to be the Dominican Tolkien’, as if he’s going to recast and rewrite his country’s history. There are limits to the applicability of Tolkien’s grand myth, however. Yunior writes that ‘at the end of The Return of the King, Sauron’s evil was taken by a ‘great wind’ and neatly ‘blown away’, with no lasting consequences to our heroes’ (hmm, I’d dispute that one). ‘But Trujillo was too powerful, too toxic a radiation to be dispelled so easily’. Belicia is forced to leave Santa Dominica after Trujillo’s death, her version of the departure for the Grey Havens. There are always other modern mythologies to draw on, however, recurrent struggles both fictional and sporting. When noting the eternal clash between writers and dictators, Yunior evokes Marvel comics and boxing, writing that ‘like the Fantastic Four and Galactus, like the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, like the Teen Titans and Deathstroke, Foreman and Ali, Morrison and Crouch, Sammy and Sergio, they seemed destined to be eternally linked in the Halls of Battle’.

Octavia Butler
As Oscar rediscovers his Dominican roots, he also seeks something of himself in the literature he loves. When he goes on holiday to Santo Domingo, he reads Octavia Butler, the African American SF writer. Just before he leaves on his ‘final voyage’, he reads Lord of the Rings again (‘for what I’m estimating the millionth time’, as Yunior writes) but has to stop when he comes to the line ‘and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls’. It’s too upsetting to recognise his peripheral and subsidiary position in Tolkien’s universe, the unwritten stories which lie off the edge of the map. Oscar finds a necessary distance from the strictures of his culture (the ‘moronic inferno’ of American anti-intellectualism) and the legacy of his Dominican ancestry through SF. His sister and mother also find themselves through embracing other cultures beyond the stiflingly conservative demands of their ‘own kind’. Lola briefly becomes a goth punk, with posters of The Smiths and The Sisters of Mercy on her wall. Beli, in Santo Dominica, works in a Chinese restaurant, the Palacio Peking, and goes to the El Hollywood nightclub. It is here that she has the fateful meeting with the gangster who is to become her lover. She is beguiled by a different and much more damaging order of fantasy to Oscar’s. Women’s stories are at the heart of the novel, and it is from them that Oscar draws his strength. These stories are the oral histories, passed down from one generation to the next, their tone preserved in the informal style of Yunior’s narrative. They survive through their telling, and the sense of continuity which and purpose which they provide. This is in contrast to the writings of Abelard, every last word of which disappears after he is swallowed forever in the dark prison cells of San Luis. Oscar has brief, meaningful and intense relationships with two women during his life in the US, but they never progress beyond the level of close friendship, and they both abandon him in favour of violent brutes who don’t like them to see any other men. This pattern repeats itself when he falls in love during his Dominican visit with Ybon Pimantel, a prostitute who’s boyfriend is a violent and possessive ‘third world cop’, another hangover from the Trujillo times. Oscar breaks with the rigid cultural template, a toxic mix of macho brutality and the Catholic mother/whore division of femininity, and treats her with tenderness and respect, making her laugh and bringing her happiness.

Both Beli and Lola go through a lot during the novel. Beli in particular suffers the full spectrum of horrors which awaited women in Trujillo’s Dominican Republic. As a child whose parents have fallen foul of the regime, she is sold into domestic slavery, and we witness her, along with her cousin La Inca, who comes to rescue her, relegated to the status of abused animal, locked in a chicken coop for the night, her back scarred by the hot cooking oil which has been thrown at her. Yunior writes ‘here she is: Hypatia Belicia Cabral, the Third and Final Daughter. Suspicious, angry, scowling, uncommunicative, a wounded hungering camesina, but with an expression and posture that shouted in bold, gothic letters: DEFIANT’. Abelard, on the other hand, a good, civilised and literate man of respectable social standing, tries to practice the ‘Tao of Dictatorship Avoidance’, but in endeavouring to protect his daughters from abuse pays a terrible price, perishing after punishing years of torment in the pitiless Mordor of San Luis. Beli’s defiant spirit is inherited by Lola and Oscar, although he takes the passive path of Abelard for a long time, also absorbs in his own quiet way.

Goodbye Oscar
It all ends in the canefield, the silent place of death, the economic basis of the Dominican Republic’s bloody and sorrowful history. It’s a primal locale, a dark locus of hopelessness and finality. It is where Beli is taken to be executed, so Oscar is in a sense returning to his family roots when he receives the ‘Gotterdamerung of all beatdowns’ there. He returns for his final encounter, the inevitable result of his insistence on love over brutality and terror, on the primacy of female experience and enduring strength over macho male power and sexual and political dominance. With an obvious but powerful pun, he says fuck you to Fuku, love his Zafa. He prevails through the telling of his tale. His influence continues to exert itself over Yunior, who, after a period of self-abasement during which he loses Lola through constant cheating and lives up to the macho Domincan ideal of manhood through an endless round of mechanical sexual conquests, finally gets himself together and becomes a professor of literature; and, through his book about Oscar, a novelist. He also becomes the custodian of Oscar’s library, his books and his writings, the outward manifestation of his inner world. Lola’s beautiful daughter, with her ‘eyes of Oscar, hair of Hypatia’, will inherit his brave, self-sacrificing defiance, just as he had inherited that of his sister and mother. She will help to build the ‘Stronger Loving World’ which Alan Moore envisages in the final chapter of the Watchmen, and which Oscar marks in the dog-eared, well-read copy which he takes with him on his final voyage. The novel ends with Oscar’s last letter, which arrives in the US after his final entry into the canefield. In it, he talks of making love to Ybon in a beachside hotel, and reverses Kurtz’s final words of despair (‘The horror! The horror!’) in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (a proper literary reference yet), providing his last Zafa: ‘So this is what everybody’s always talking about! Diablo! If only I’d known – the beauty! The Beauty!’

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