Friday, July 25, 2008

Auto-Win Book Club #1, Part 2: The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

[Sidenote: this post is for the auto-win book club's first selection The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao which I know y'all read, right? And also; I'm still intending to respond to your "I wouldn't like me if you met me" responses, it just might take a little while ...] Okay, let's begin!

I know what you're thinking -- whitegirl, don't do it. You'll make an ass of yourself, chavera, and I mean an ass of yourself, you're no Sam Anderson-as-Barthelme[hell, you're no S.A.-as-Richard Price1 for that matter] and besides, didn't you learn the first time? Age 12, "Correr" -- your short story that infused clumsy junior high prose with a stolen West Side Story sidestep and the tangy slang you'd ripped off from Little Professor Bookstore's "urban fiction" section1? Six years later, your high school boyfriend read "Correr" out loud at parties, doing his best Georgia-by-way-of-San-Jùan accent. It always amused a crowd. I promise: I'm not trying to sound like The Watcher. It's just that I can't get that voice outta my head --said I'd re-read it yesterday and only got half it re-read but still ... I apologize for any memory lapses/inaccuracies.

Did you read it once? Twice? What did you get the second time around -- I feel so far like it's a whole different book this time, so much that I missed, and this nasty habit of glazing over during dream sequences ...

Still cringing? Maybe nauseous? Itchy? Omg, what's she gonna speak in -- Spabrew? Hengish? [Spabrew sounds like flavoured water, Henglish sounds like an antacid, I love Jews]. I took eight years of Spanish, si, and Ingrid making fun of my terrible accent all that time ...

Anyhow, nu, who cares. Enough about memememe, this is about Oscar Wao and his celebrated short and wondrous life. I got some thoughts knocking around, I’m gonna give ‘em to you, you tell me what you’re thinking. Good?

Let's begin, bevakasha.

So I’m wondering this: shit was tough –Nazi evil dictator tough, to destroy you is no loss tough – in the DR. “Violence, intimidation, massacre, rape, co-optation and terror.” We’re told straight off that “everybody in Santo Domingo has a fukù story knocking around in their family,” then later that there’s a specific fukù following Oscar’s lineage, originating from Abelard's misstep.


Where, then, does responsibility end and fate begin? And does it matter – why things happen? Humans have been attributing the concrete to the spiritual/abstract since day one, we all know this, the Talmud, Aboriginal mythology, Native American spirits through Mohammed and Abraham in the desert and our friend Jesus with all that prophecy that’s been coerced by contemporary evangelicals to explain condemnation rather than life itself.

Is it those matching dreams -- the ones had by Abelard, Oscar, Beli, and then Yunior, etc. -- that make this particular genetic strand stand out? How precisely does all the talk of superpowers or the supernatural or comics and dungeons, dragons, other worlds and twilight zone insanity ... make this book work so g-damn well?

What exactly about this family’s fate could be chocked up to curses, and how much was just the way things were then, shitty for anyone under Trujillo?
“If you ask me I don’t think there are any such things as curses. I think there is only life. That is enough.”
(Lola, pg. 205)

“The curse, some of you will say.
Life, is what I say. Life.”
(Lola, pg. 210)
Socorro, blinded by grief/postpartum depression, steps in front of a truck -- fukù? Cited as “the very worst kind of luck”? Or physics and Psych 101?

Beli falls for a shmuck in white pants who inspires a punch to the face the first time they meet and is all kinds of sketch from the get-go. Look, I get it, the hunger "to be in love and to be loved back" when you've felt unrequited for so long. But when that guy who cheated on his girlfriend to be with me eventually cheated on me to be with someone else – that’s not a supernatural curse, that’s an asshole.

Oscar – Oscar, who meant well, who we love and believe in – doggedly pursues a woman who tells him every way up and down that she’s bad news, her boyfriend tells Oscar he’ll kill him and he pursues her anyway.

And Abelard – he could’ve made better choices, yes? It’s better to die a revolutionary than to live as a servant to tyranny, but this man didn’t go out blazing – didn’t speak out, didn’t defy on principle (and neither did his father) – never did his family any favours, really, there were better routes than a last-minute panic attack?

Grasshopper, there's nothing I hate more than a game of "who's got it worst," 'cause pain’s relative, and I’m a Jew after all. There are families all over with serious fukù shit going on (hell, take my Mom for example3. Was Oscar a victim of fukù, or was he dealt a hand no worse than your average bad hand?


Not to get all Body for Life on everyone but c’mon, the kid could’ve run a little farther, yeah? Did you feel a little frustrated too, like Yunior did, to see Oscar give up so fast? He didn’t need to abandon the writing or the sci-fi, but I know that it wasn’t just dudes back there in the GURPS room at the hobby shop distributing hit points.

Alright – it was mostly dudes. But sometimes those dudes did get laid. Sometimes, yeah? The greasy kid in the trenchcoat always seemed to be doing a lot more fucking with his greasy ruddy-faced girlfriend than any of the hotshots were with their tight cheerleader lovebunnies. The cool kids gossiped in the cafeteria and the Trekkies were in the band rehearsal room and when they came out they looked like they’d had something way more tasty than the girls still powdering. The popular kids went to prom and the geeks stayed home and fucked each other with super-powers. Like they said in Pump up the Volume: “High school is the bottom, being a teenager sucks, but that's the point, surviving it is the whole point.”

Don’t get me wrong – I fully blame an impressive string of trashwhoredom and bad decisions on the pains of my own awkward adolescence, and I came out alright, way luckier than Oscar.
What I'm saying is adolescence is hard, high school is harder. It's tough to be fatherless and have the weight of unlucky generations upon you. I know Oscar's workout regimen isn't the point, but it seemed his will was cursed ... not his way?


But here’s the kind of supernatural shit that I believe in (and believe me, I believe, ain Mazel b'Yisrael, in just about everything, I pray, I buy everything except fate and curses) – that possibility of that book, the "exposè of the supernatural roots of the Trujillo regime!"

‘Cause isn’t it fucking scary to think Hitler was flesh & blood like the rest of us, that every generation there’s a human being born who’s so utterly rotten to the core and chock full of dictatorship while entirely free of conscience, a sociopath so sociopathic that he doesn’t mess around with Manson psycho shit but takes over an entire goddamn country, gets his underlings ready to execute unspeakable atrocities in his name?

That kind of evil just doesn't seem fathomable. That’s not any kind of ahavah. I'd like to read that book -- the argument for why Hitler's actually a one-eyed monster. Saddam Hussein was a swamp creature, eventually done in by a more clever & cunning kind of animal (4).

So it's not luck or the paths of our lives that must be controlled by some outer force, but the outer force itself that drives us inward, off bridges, into cane fields. It's the villan that defies humanity and survives, the good guy that goes all too easy into death. We save ourselves. Or ... we don't. Zafa, Fukù -- Lola had the same lineage and she turned out pretty much okay, and I'm wondering if its cause that girl didn't believe in fate and wasn't waiting for magic to save her. Or was it just ‘cause she turned out foxy and Oscar didn’t? Beli dragged Beli out of the cornfield after all. Or was it? Is this magical realism for a new age?

Speaking of Lola -- I read "Wildwood" in The New Yorker last summer, and enthusiastically toted the issue to the girl who'd asked me to pick it up for her in the first place, gushing about what a good story I'd just read. Oh my god, I'm so glad I got this, and then read it, because you have to read this story, she’s so amazing --

He, she said.

He? I asked.

Junot Dìaz. Is a he.

REALLY?! -- and I guess I'd assumed it was a she 'cause the narrator was a she, but this brings me to my point which is damn can he write women well. Eh, I know that sounds reductive. But chew on it; Lydia the mistress is the one with the plan to get Abelard and family the hell out of dodge, Lola makes her “toto” work for her and enchants Yunior the Player and won’t let Oscar cop out of his life and Beli charges chest-first into everything, forward ... and Yunior can’t seem to help cheating on his girlfriends, Oscar complains that he’s cursed and refuses to fight fate, Abelard does nothing to prevent his death besides panic (and such a smart man! Such a mensch!) ...

But Oscar. Oh, Oscar. You love him anyway, you want him to make it. He means well and he's smart and we all knew a kid that talked like that. And I guess he does in a way, he gets what he wants, and maybe that’s okay. Maybe his life was short and wondrous, emphasis on wondrous, emphasis on chutzpah ...

Were we supposed to know what words went in the blanks at the end? Hangman?

Lola's daughter will be smart and as brave as The Watcher thinks she'll be, si? And then it will end? So then, is the fukù not bad things happening to you, but the relentless urge to make bad decisions?

Bridget brought this up -- that in his interview Diaz noted: "When you're a writer of colour in the US, you're considered a genre no matter what you write". She asked: Do you agree? And, if you do, do you think a novel like this can break down (at least to some extent) those barriers?

I do agree. Oy, the lesbian ghetto, etc ... and the obsessive genre divisions of bookstores ... anyone with bookstore experience got a story of their own? What's "Latino-American Lit," and what goes front & center with "literature" itself (and all that entails, all that suggests) ...

Why The Watcher, why do you think? Do you think Diaz saw himself in that character, do you think that distance made the narrative work? (I do) And Lola, the only one able to tell her own story ...

Yeah, I ain't got answers, I don't even have questions, I just have ... discuss.

Though my Spanish is weak in parts, I do know that sci-fi language, more or less. I mean I occasionally operated as DungeonMaster. I did GURPS. Now we've got computer games -- I wonder how Oscar's life would've gone differently ten years later, with all that World of Warcraft shit, Oscar Wao in Second Life, Oscar Wao the Sim talking about sailboats. But the novels is where the heart is, ultimately.

Working at a lit agency that represented a lot of top sci-fi and fantasy writers, we got piles of shitty sci-fi/fantasy novels every day. Something about creating a fantasy world that far-fetched is just awfully delicious, especially when you're young, or alone ...

Did your relation to that genre change how you read the book?


I'd like to go walking some spring night--you know, one of those nights that are warm all night long. I'd like to walk. With a girl. Walk for an hour, to a place where you can barely hear or see anything. Climb a hill and sit. Look at the stars. I'd like to hold the girl's hand. I'd like to smell the grass and the wheat growing in the fields, and know I was in the center of the entire country, in the very center of the United States, and towns all around and highways away off, but nobody knowing we're right there on top of that hill, on the grass, watching the night.

And just holding her hand would be good. Can you understand that? Do you know that holding someone's hand can be the thing? Such a thing that your hands move while not moving. You can remember a thing like that, rather than any other thing about a night, all your life. Just holding hands can mean more, I believe it. When everything is repeated, and over, it's the first things rather than the last that count.

"So, for a long time," he had continued, "I'd like to just sit there, not saying a word. There aren't any words for a night like that. We wouldn't even look at each other. We'd see the lights of the town far off and know that other people had climbed other hills before us and that there was nothing better in the world. Nothing could be made better; all of the houses and ceremonies and guarantees in the world are nothing compared to a night like this. The cities and the people in the rooms in the houses in those cities at night are one thing; the hills and the open air and the stars and holding hands are something else.

"And then, finally, without speaking, the two of you would turn your heads in the moonlight and look at each other.

"And so you're on the hill all night long. Is there anything really wrong with this, can you honestly say there is anything wrong?"

"No," said a voice, "the only thing wrong on a night like that is that there is a world and you must come back to it."

DISCUSS WHATEVER YOU WANT. ask your own questions.

1Award-Winner Sam Anderson's review of Richard Price's "Lush Life," written in the style of Richard Price, didn't receive the same level of internet-screamer praise as his review of Barthelme's "Flying to America," written in the style of Donald Barthelme. Personally, I love everything Sam Anderson's ever written, but I concede that I love some pieces more than others.
2In the eighties and early nineties, the West Side branch of the Ann Arbor Public Library was located in the Westgate Shopping Center, along with Little Professor's Bookstore and TJ Maxx. While her mother went 'maxxing,' Riese spent a lot of time sitting on the floor in bookstores and libraries reading books her Mom wouldn't let her get/borrow.
3'Cause I know my own story the best, let me share: my grandfather -- my Mom's Dad and Mom divorced when she was young (and this was the 50’s, it wasn’t like it is now, 50-50 those who make it and those who don’t) – and then my Mom’s Dad had to leave the country for complicated reasons. Mom was 14 when her Mom died, so she raised her sister with help from her grandparents (who both died within a few years of my birth). Long story short my Mom reconnected with her Dad when I was a kid, we went to visit him and his new family in Australia – all’s well, happiness abounds. He gets tongue cancer and passes away when I’m 9. When I’m 13, my parents divorce but they’re still best friends a year later when my Dad dies out of the blue (yup, I was 14, just like my Mom was when her Mom ...) And yeah, I’m her daughter, and I’m more or less a failure, though my brother is gainfully employed, a real mensch. Fuku? Schlimazel? Or just a rotten string of depressing events?
4George W. Bush, by some bizarre combination of blue blood and evil crazytown bullshit, became president in 2001 and was re-elected to a second term in 2004, though no one smart actually voted for him. Bush’s decision to wage a “war on terror” in Iraq was so miscalculated and poorly executed that many young people from liberal college towns don’t even realize what an evil asshole crazytown dictator Hussein truly was, I mean, the dude deserved to die for crimes against humanity (though 9/11 was not, even remotely, one of them). Anyway, Bush’s reign will be over soon. He's Mother Theresa compared to Trujillo. YES WE CAN!


autumn m said...

ok so i read, re-read, and re-re-read this post. sadly i am at a loss. maybe i would understand if i would have read the book. that might have helped. just alittle. but the one thing i understood was that hitler sucks. when one actually sits down and thinks about what happened, it's mind blowing. just think, it could happend again.....

Mira said...

So i read, re-read, and re-re-read this post and found it...


I'll be back later with thoughts.

autumn m-if you haven't read the book, it won't make sense.

caitlin said...

so i read it for the third time 2 days ago to catch up. i love when you read something again and again and it keeps getting better. as i'm sure you know that doesn't always happe. i like the way you wrote about it this time. less formal, more like you.

i was also confused when the dashes were in those words, like, was that hangman? what was going on?

i fully believe that holding hands can be magical. the first time your hands graze and then someone squeezes tight. sometimes, it's those little things that mean the most. magic touch.

this book was super serious on a lot of levels. i really liked it even though i was going to hate it, i totally cried at the end, even though i knew his life was going to be brief, it has made me more aware of diaz's work, made me not judge a book by it's cover (literally) and so much more.

yay book club. what's the next one going to be? i can't hardly wait.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but this doesn't have anything to do with the book. I'm just looking for advice.
Situation- I'm in Rome, Italy. Presently. Only for a little while longer. I don't usually wear many dresses, but today I was visiting the Vatican and you have to keep your shoulders and knees covered to enter the various churches. (I don't really think this matters, but I don't believe. Just a huge art fan). It's extremely hot. I wore a cute sun dress that fit amazingly except for the boob area. I have been contemplating a breast reduction for a few years now. You don't understand how stressful it is looking incredible and then worrying about your bra showing or something stupid like that. And it's impossible not to wear a bra because you have to keep those things in check.
Can you tell me what you think on this subject? I really want a second opinion before I go and do anything I may regret in the future. Of course the dress thing isn't the only reason I want this done either. It's harder on my back because they're heavy. I have to spend like $80 on DDD bras. DDD isn't THAT big. I'll have to send you a picture of myself in the dress or something so we can really confirm. Please give me your insight on this matter. It would be much appreciated.

caitlinmae said...

HUzzzzAAH team Caitlin for momentarily being team crybaby (I cried at the end too. Big fat tears, some of them at work, some of them on the subway- two truly embarrassing places to cry.)

I think what I took most from this blog-entry-inspired reading comprehension of the book is perfectly summed up in those two quotes from Lola. I have a half thought about the very dark and very light, and how they're really just one sensation and intrinsically linked. Trujillo and Hitler and countless other baddies created such unbelievable soul crushing ugliness. BUT.
Would there have been an opportunity for beautiful examples of humanity, like really triumphant brilliant good guys, like Oskar Schindler and Paul Rusebagaina, to prove the exact opposite of evil is also possible? Should a "curse" or series of unfortunate events be seen as a great cosmic injustice, or a call to arms?

Humanity is fascinating.

I want to have further discussion on the ghettoization of being a "minority" writer (and by that I mean one who is not an old dead white guy.) Because this book is so phenomenal because you simply CAN'T stop diaz's voice from riccocheting around your head, even if you don't know what the spanish means... and I honestly don't know if I think this book could have been written by a non-Dominican. But because he's a member of that group, does it make it less of a literary accomplishment, or is the point moot because the voice should be heard? (I don't know if I mean for these to be rhetorical questions. I think Diaz is a truly masterful writer, and his intrinsically Dominican book isn't lessened by the fact that he's a member of the culture he's writing.)

I am ambivalent about this. I think I need to differentiate between writing ability and range. I'm reading heaps of shit this summer, and I should know by now that range isn't necessarily a mark of talent. On the other hand, writers like Chuck Palahniuk are sort of one trick ponies, and I'd like to see him write something that wasn't quite so quirky, underworld, minimalist.

woo. epic comment. But everyone else- HURRY UP AND COMMENT BECAUSE IT'S DISCUSSION TIME!!!

riese said...

autumn m: If you haven't read the book it'll probs just seem like a lot of nonsense, yes -- but that's fucking awesome that you still read it three times! But that's true about Hitler, he did suck ... and I feel like it kinda is happening again all over the place, like in Darfur and etc. ... the world is scary when you look into it.

mira: thanks! i look forward to your stunning thoughts.

caitlin: If someone doesn't illuminate the mystery of the dashes for us I'm gonna be very disappointed.

You have to read "drown" next -- well, after "how sassy changed my life" or whatevs. What WILL the next selection be? Something worth re-reading ... and see, I picked a book boys and girls would both like this time, and ADAM DIDN'T EVEN READ IT, so maybe I'll just go for a female memoirist the next time.

My friend Jake wrote this poem in high school that said "love is not letting go when your hands get sweaty," and even though that's not necessarily true, I always thought it was pretty sweet.

(Nice, re: judging the book by it's cover literally ... ditto!)

I want to re-read everything now. I think I probs pick up as much from my initial read as you do, even though you do yours 100 times faster. I'm just slow and flighty.

anonymous: OMG thank G-D you commented OMG, and thank G-D you asked ME, bc this is my BAG! Though I do understand and relate to many issues faced my women in today's world I am not familiar with the struggles of having large breasts, though luckily I read a lot of terrible women's magazines. I didn't even know there was a such thing as DDD! OMG! I'd skip the DDDs and get an F! Anyhow if it hurts your back and is uncomfortable than you should get surgery for sure! I recommend a B or C. My Mom will be SOOOO mad that I told you that because she thinks someone's gonna sue me for giving bad advice! oh, MOM!

caitlinmae: Can I just say how happy I am about the reunion of Team Caitlin, even if we're talking about crying here, and not about making teevee shows. I cry when I read on the subway too (cough -- lovely bones) ...

There's a case to be made that we wouldn't know how to see the good ... or witness incredible acts of savior fair ... if we couldn't analyze the world from a perspective of also knowing the hardest parts. Here I think we'd hope for a less destructive balance -- smaller acts of evil, consequentiall smaller acts of kindness. But yes, humanity -- the things they do. (""humanity i love you because when you're hard up you pawn your intellegence to buy a drink" -e.e. cummings)

i actually have an issue with people who try to write about cultures they aren't a member of -- see "Memoirs of a Geisha" -- so I don't think anyone but him could've written it, for sure. But I think that if white men can write books about white men that are considered to be so accessible that schoolkids are required to read and analyse them over and over and over ... that perhaps we can get to a place where "Beloved" isn't the only non-white-man book people are reading in school and i think Diaz could be a new addition to the cannon.

I feel like one trick ponies have become almost a marketing strategy -- it's hard to find contemporary writers who consciously attempt to diversify their range. It's like the brand matters -- can you recognize who wrote this, etc.

it took diaz 11 years to write this, which's pretty incredible, that's a long time.

Where is everyone else? I think they're on vaycay -- but also last time it took a long time for everyone to respond 'cause they wanted to be sure to say what they needed to say. DISCUSSION TIME, WEIRDOS!

Anonymous said...

"Where is everyone else?"

The discussion questions this round are way more in depth I think. Fate vs. Free Will and what not. They aren't questions with answers, just opinions.

Maybe people don't have them?

I do, but i'm thinking. It's difficult to articulate if you're not 100% sure what you want to say, so that's where I'm at.

I also read Bright Lights, Big City since Round 1 of questions so I need to go back and refresh my memory on Ol' Oscar.

I'm also following you on Twitter. The terminology makes me feel like a stalker and/or cult member. Kinda creepy actually...

anyway, i'll post my answers later :-)

Adam said...

Called out in all caps. Harsh.

:::shuffles off to the corner, shamefaced:::

Dav Loz said...

i was promised a comment-by-comment response to the comments in your post where you outed that chick who lost her mind. instead it's all, "blah blah blah books, blah blah blah literacy, blah blah blah chapter blah."

get on it already.

riese said...

mindymunizaga: Yeah, totally -- I was answering CM's question ("where is everyone?") I guess everyone's actually going to answer those questions, I'd just meant to throw it out there and let people talk about whatevs they thought about, but i think i forgot that maybe people are counting on me to ask the questions and I asked really complciated in-depth questions so I'm giving everyone four days to answer and that's also 'cause I have to edit this video and it's taking every single minute of my life this weekend to complete.


adam: Next month we're reading "Our Bodies, Ourselves" and then Elizabeth Wurtzel's seminal work "Now, More, Again," about her struggles with addiction to ritalin. I hope you're ready!

lozo: Patience, grasshopper. I so busy! But FYI speaking of promises, that thing about how you were gonna put it in your next vlog? Made me LOL and LMAO a little too. I'll try to stick a grapefruit in the mail as an apology.

autumn m said...

truthfully the only reason i read it three times was because i thought i was suppossed to know what it said. i kinda felt like my brains were seeping out my ears. but thank god it was just me not reading a book!!! but you write, i'll read. thats how i freakin roll!!!!!

The Brooklyn Boy said...

I fully plan on responding to rest of the post and the book and such, but half-drunk on a Sunday morning, the nu/bevakasha combo slayed me for a second time after previewing the post on Friday. And I thought you should know this. Be back later ... and soberer.


Don't go to parties in Bushwick on random whims.

mindy said...

Ok, ready.

I don’t think it matters. The “why things happen” situation. I mean, I have my opinion which I don’t think I could really even explain fully to someone else without confusing them and myself in the process, but here we go…

I like the concept of free will. It’s a control thing I think, because the idea of having no say in things freaks me out. But, if you have free will and that makes something present itself to someone else, it’s outside of that persons’ control. So what’s that? Fate?

Maybe fate just brings you and other people to a point, and then it’s up to you. So, the people you surround yourself with, you sort of trust in their decisions and in their free will, because you know it’ll eventually manifest itself as your fate.

But then why are some people born into poverty and illness – things beyond their control. I believe in karma as well. You get what you give, and whatever you put out will come back to you in some way. But then why do bad things happen to good people? That’s another conversation.

As for Oscar’s decisions / fate – I really think a lot of what happened to him was to an extent his own fault. He alienated himself sometimes, and the energy and attitude had toward people would turn anybody off. I think his fantasy life, the way he imagined people in his head (women specifically) was a distraction for him, and it was self destructive. The distraction from his life became his life, so much so that he couldn’t even tear himself away from the fantasy world in his head to change things in his real life.
Maybe he could have grown out of it, or met a girl who would love him the way he loved the gender as a whole, but the overlap between his decisions and the decisions of others means we’ll never know. Poor ol’ thing.

” is the fukù not bad things happening to you, but the relentless urge to make bad decisions?” MAYBE! I like this theory.

I think being a writer of some minority can offer glimpses into a culture, but breaking down barriers is only really possible if the reader has an open mind. I’m a huge believer in the idea that education is the best bet against ignorance and hatred, but it’s only what you make of it.

For the words at the end – which words did you mean? What the Mongoose said (301) or the ones that could have saved him and Lola (327)?

I originally has answered as though it was w/r/t Lola,

The words at the end. I love you, I figure. It’s sort of cliché, maybe not. I remember at the time, I thought “I love you” made sense, but in hindsight maybe she needed to hear something more than that.

I know I already said this round 1, but this was a great book. Wondrous first choice.

Meghan said...

Sorry I'm slow! July... Well, I read the book once and quickly and had to return it to the liberry, but here I go:

I skim dream sequences too.

Fate is a story our brains tell while looking into the past. Here: it's evolutionary. Neural complexity ("intelligence"?) makes H. sapiens better at getting stuff. We can remember patterns, learn, anticipate future events, solve problems. Peel a banana. Make pretty jewellry. Lie and steal and coax. Also love and honor and trust. All to get stuff: sex and resources, that's all we really truly want. Whoever has the most of both of those--and they do this crazy positive feedback loop on each other, snake swallowing its tail--whoever has the most, wins. The gene is selfish. So, increased brain complexity FTW, but it also brings all this other shit: Self-awareness. Memory. Loneliness. (Evil.) The slightest tiniest nudge of awareness that the universe is chaotic and uncontrollable and we are alone and very mortal.

So we have all these stories--fate being one--to explain the chaos.

Is the story false? Is any story?

There is only life, yes.

I don't know. I don't believe. I don't even want to, much as I heart Mulder.

Maybe it's only when looking back that we can add up all the variables and come out with x = fate (or chaos).

Did Oscar make the wrong choices because of a curse? Or because of the accidental loneliness borne of neural complexity?

I think what I liked most about Oscar is that he didn't hurt other people. But he sure hurt himself, didn't he, so maybe that says something about me too.

I think what I liked most about the book (on this first read) is the way every layer and level is telling the same story. This has all happened before and will all happen again. All the layers and levels: countries, cultures, myths, memories, parents, children, dreams, fantasy novels, corn fields.

Um. Yes. Enough random rambling for tonight.

NEP said...

I went camping this weekend so I thought I would be late to the party, but I guess I'm not? Where is everyone? Bueller?

When I finally finished the book (I ended up reading it 1.5 times because I had to re-read the last half to refresh my memory) it made me think of a famous Sartre line: "Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world - and defines himself afterwards." I could get all existential on the Cabrals and tell them their fuku/zafa shiz is a load of BS, but there is something to be said for the idea of "fate" as a means of shirking responsibilities. If you consider fuku as a deterministic event, then all of Oscar's actions become meaningless. There is no cause and effect to his choices. Instead I like to think of his life being a Choose Your Own Adventure book that had 2 endings (brief wondrous life or long mediocre life). Maybe the blanks at the end are Diaz's attempt at a reader Mad Lib? Like whatever you think it should say shapes the story and ending in the direction you want.

I don't think he was "cursed" or dealt a hand worse than anyone else since everyone has the opportunity to 2 endings. The world can be a cruel place where bad things happen to good people, and assholes like Trujillo exist against the backdrop of terror and injustice. The fact that Lola seemed to escape the fuku, only furthers the absurdist notion that any meaning in a crazy world is the meaning you give it. Her two quotes about life and curses show just how different she was from Oscar. The fact that she was living life practically and engaging in the world with a purpose, made her actions/choices meaningful, and the fuku irrelevant. By the end of the book I was frustrated with Oscar because it felt like he had given up, and resigned himself to the power of the fuku. Did he have to be fat? A social outcast? A lovesick fool? It was his choice to live a brief (albeit wondrous) life and even tho' I was rooting for him, I cursed him for getting on that plane and flying back to the DR.

If his entire life were predestined, then I could have just skipped to the last page of the book. It would have said: Oscar died young and in love, still fat/hopeful/stubborn, but miraculously not a virgin. The End.

JD said...

"Where does responsibility end and fate begin?" I realize that this question has been written about already here, but it appears first in the post, and so got stuck inside my head and tumbled around for the weekend (Three days and this is all that I could come up with? Yeah, I'm disappointed too, but here goes.)
What was compelling for me about this novel was how much control the characters had over their fates, despite the inherited fuku. Yeah, they weren't the luckiest bunch in one sense, but, as has already been pointed out, O wasn't born infected with HIV in some poverty-stricken African village either. There weren't sudden, unexplainable deaths (heart attacks, car accidents) and the one completely uncontrollable event (Beli's cancer) wasn't a major storyline. Watching the consequences of free will (indecision, poor decisions, inaction) as they played out for each character, set against the backdrop of the fuku/zafa thread was what really made the book work for me. (Probs bc I'm a very hard-core realist type of person, who has a difficult time with concepts like fate and destiny in general, at least as over-arching agents in anyone's narrative, whether real or fictional.)

Riese highlighted most of the major examples that struck me. Specifically, O's suicide attempt illustrated this free will/consequences/fate juxtaposition well, and so hit me hard. While it could be viewed as part of the Cabral family fuku ("It was the curse that made me do it, you know"), clearly there is also the element of personal agency and responsibility that is a little more clear here than some other events (like Beli's breast cancer, for example). I guess what struck me was how flippantly it was treated- O was depressed for a while ("All I knew was that I'd never seen him more unhappy"), then attempted suicide, and then was treated in the hospital exclusively for bodily injuries. I don't have too much experience with this, but this was 1992, he could/would/should have also gotten some sort of psychiatric evaluation? (Not the expensive stuff...even a counselor at college, no?) Depression or therapy or anything related weren't even mentioned. And I'm not at all knocking Diaz for this; of course I think it was done on purpose. It suggested at least two things -

1) The potential consequences of growing up with a certain atmosphere/family dynamic characterized by a "we don't talk about those things/what the hell is the matter with you" understanding. An understanding that may be especially prevalent in first and second generation immigrant families? (I guess, just anecdotally, I've found this understanding more prevalent in, but of course not exclusive to, 1st-2nd gen immigrant families like mine, or childhood friends' than in non, more Americanized friends- like no one I knew growing up had seen a therapist (and not for lack of issues), and then in college it was every other person I knew). So, we see how that choice to ignore the problem and hope it goes away subsequently influenced the rest of Oscar's narrative ("If you try anything stupid, his mother swore, I'll haunt you my whole life. You better believe it"). It seemed to me that this sort of dynamic would cause as much anxiety for Oscar as the pressure to behave like a "typical" Dominican male.

2) Understanding why things happen is important, in that this understanding is often the catalyst for change. Of course this depends on what type of "things" you're talking about. But in general, knowing why gives you a little better handle on understanding events that you can, vs. those that you cannot, control- or at least what you can grapple with. Trying to take your life is, kinda, a big fucking deal. The whole incident, at least viewed through Yunior's lens, you know, there wasn't any acknowledgment by Beli (probs not expected), but by Lola either (kinda maybe expected), of what was really going on with Oscar. So, understanding why things happen in the context of learning from mistakes- your own or others, matters. Do you think that Lola is going to be the same kind of mother that Beli was? How would she treat a nerdy, unattractive daughter who would rather stay in her room and write fanficton than join the track team?

I guess for me a lot of the second half, wrt to O's poor, poor decisions, can be traced back to the aftermath of his suicide attempt. I definitely wasn't thinking, "here it is, the curse hitting Oscar, and now it's over." It was more, screw the curse...why didn't anyone (including Oscar) do something?

And, getting back to the juxtaposition of the free will stuff against the magical backdrop- I probably would have felt the same about the suicide attempt had the curse thread been left out of the narrative. However, having it as the backdrop really made these type of tragic events sharper/more powerful for me, if that makes sense?

All that being said, I agree with Mindy re: one person's free will being another's fate, and just to concur ”is the fukù not bad things happening to you, but the relentless urge to make bad decisions?” Holler, I'm on the bandwagon of people who answer YES.

Sorry to comment on a lot of what's already been dissected, but that was at the forefront of my mind. Maybe will be back for some of the other stuff.

a;ex said...

I don't really have many feelings about the story itself, but I just wanted to say that I loved what/how you wrote about it.
Loved it.


I know, I know.
I'm sorry about my lack of feelings. You'd think maybe the spanish thing or a relation to any one of the many characters would pull something out of me... hmm... not so much.
But man, what a great story.

I think my favorite character was La Inca cause the woman really held it down. I looked up to her - she made me feel better when bad things would happen in the story. She was right about everything.

My favorite moment/scene was def when Beli was chasing after Lola outside the coffee shop and she pretended to fall so she could trick Lola, catch her, and laugh in her face. That was probs the biggest LOL moment for me. It's something I can see my crazy puerto rican sister doing to her child when she gets big enough to run away.

and last but not least, my favorite sentence/quote:
Beli felt like a good part of her had already disembarked. Santo Domingo was fading. The house, La Inca, the fried yuca she was putting into her mouth were already gone--it was only a matter of allowing the rest of the world to catch up.

I have no idea what the blanks at the end were, and it bothers me that no one has this on lock. We read 300 pages of an epic (sorta) story and then there's this mystery at the end with these blank words and it's driving me completely batshit crazy.

The Brooklyn Boy said...

So this is gonna be waaaay ridiculous for a comment, but I didn't wanna be that guy redirecting you to his blog for his reaction (where this is cross-posted), but here goes:

"Before all hope died I used to have this stupid dream that shit could be saved, that we would be in bed together like the old times, with the fan on, the smoke from our wee drifting above us, and I'd finally try to say words that could have saved us.
_____ _____ _____.
But before I can shape the vowels I wake up. My face is wet, and that's how you know it's never going to come true.
Never, ever." (p. 327, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz)


Just a cup.

Just to see how it feels.

Bitter beverage. Taste takes getting used to. Can be sweetened or cooled off, but never truly altered. Gets addictive. Gets you going. Gets you out of bed every morning. Makes you perk up when you smell it. Makes you wonder what it was like before you knew. Makes you.

We're not going for one. The rumor's been floating since February. Fake promise we won't fail to deliver, because a falsehood can't make it through the mail.

It started with a casual suggestion, a reasonable way to get to know more about each other when mutual connections made it clear we should. It didn't happen. And the suggestion began to bounce back and forth, uttered mouth-to-mouth the way false promises seem to slip off tongues, past lips and into pools of faith.

When did I first know we were lying? Just now. Never. Always. All contradictory, all correct.

"I seem to be allergic to diligence, and Lola said, Ha. What you're allergic to is trying." (p. 25, Diaz)

In pensive moments, I might consider the number of girls I've known (quite a few), the number I've kissed (a healthy amount) and the number I've slept with (fewer than you think) and marvel at how I've gone roughly 13 years of date-able history without a "serious" relationship, one of more than six weeks or one with someone I was willing to label my "girlfriend" ... while we were dating.

It comes down to the coffee. And the slew of stories like it where I "knew" it wasn't going to work. If you ask, I'll have a prepared statement ready to be revealed. Picture perfect, logically flawless and hollow like an excuse: "I'm graduating." "I'm changing jobs sometime soon." "I'm not in the right place right now."

People push when they think it's obvious. Offer advice. Offer guidance. Offer their unanswered dreams. They think they see something in me, but I'm no Neo. Can't carry everyone's expectations into each situation. Can't be more than myself. Can't even crack the fuku of my own mental block.

I've not kissed a girl without knowing I could've done it 20 minutes ago. Sure, from that point, I will knowingly build the tension like a motherfucker, ratcheting it so high most first kisses have been monstrous, but acting on impulse, it doesn't exist. Every risky behavior I've had has been calculated. From weed to women to cliff jumping and whatever-the-fuck ever else: I knew what I was doing, and I chose it.

Except for that one drunk Halloween I ranted about Allan Houston's $100 million contract. That was inevitable.

... Fucking Layden.

"Later when he thought about it he realized that these very cousins could probably have gotten him laid if only he'd bothered to hang out with them. But you can't regret the life you didn't lead." (p. 31, Diaz)

But choosing, and knowing you chose, that means you also chose not to. Not to make the move, not put the friendship in jeopardy, not know whether you'd still love her like you do now.

I'm unsure if I'd rather not be walking around with my ass kicked two times a year and caring about too many girls to give any the attention they deserve. I think I wouldn't be me. Either way, I cast my fate with this fuku a long time ago, and there's no zafa just yet.

Maybe tomorrow.

Maybe never.

it won't matter.

The Brooklyn Boy said...

Thanks for making me/us/yourself read this. Really, Riese. Really. :)

dorothy said...

I just got back from Texas. I don't know where my head is currently, but I'm going to try. Sorry about the late follow up to Book Club.

I think everyone needs an explanation for why horrible things happy. Is it really fate or is it circumstance?

No one escapes a dictator- Beli and Abelard lived in the Dominican Republic and therefore were at the mercy of Trujillo.

Beli raised Oscar and Lola but there is an obvious difference in Hispanic culture in the feminine and the masculine expectations.

Furthermore, think of the abuse Beli dealt with from the men who were supposed to "care" for her. How does she protect her daughter, a female and therefore likely to suffer the same fate at the hands of men? She ensures she raises Lola to be a woman that will take care of herself. In that way Lola escapes the fuku/fate.

Beli raises Oscar. She protects every bit of him so he will not become the men she has had in her life. Men who couldn't fight overtly (Abelard) and men who did (Gangster). He is the exact opposite of the men in her life, men who left, men who damaged her. Beli raises a man who is still very much a child- there is no delayed gratification, there is no motivation, someone always is there to protect and do for him. The man that Oscar was raised to be could never turn his back on a woman, on love. Oscar's fuku is a result of his up bringing.

And not that this makes it any less painful or beautiful. These are what people's stories are- painful and beautful. Beli survives, Lola has a little girl, Oscar is loved in return. These are the things we take from life, the good, wonderful, precious things. These are the reason we live. And these are the things that cause us to die a little inside too when Oscar says "Fire." When Oscar continues to live his life bravely and whole heartedly to the very end because after all that is the man he was raised to be. (This is the incident that I found most touching and confounding in the entire novel. I still think about that moment, 2 weeks after finishing the novel. Could I ever say fire?)

And so it doesn't really end there? Lola will raise a child as the sister of a man who walked to his death. Lola will forever have that loss and it will shape her.

We are all made by our circumstances.

Mercury said...

I'd've commented earlier, but I'm not a great original. Like, I have no previously unseen insights into this text, I never do, I don't analyze these things terribly well. Mrs. Oomen thought I did, which was funny, because actually she asked a question and I knew what she wanted the answer to be so I'd provide it, then she'd give me flack "Your analysis in class is so good, I'd think you'd do better on ____ _____ ____" (hangman again)

That's one thing I can comment on. I really liked the blanks. Like it's open. Like it ties up the theme with the guy saying "When I'm dead we'll reveal who's REALLY the horrible dictator... in these blank pages, but I promise they'll magically fill when I'm no longer around to be accountable for when they don't." Diaz kept bringing it back, referring to blank pages in spanish, relating other things to that, etc, and then he gave us blanks. Not pages, but words. They're crucial, but not. Reminds me of when I first read this collection of stories by... K-something russell, or whatever, she had a knack for truncating her endings before htings were really tied up, which I felt was SO FRUSTRATING at first but by the end of the collection I ADORED it and afterwards felt most authors went to too much trouble to fill in the blanks for you. Because what happens next, after the crucial event, you can predict/don't need to know/doesn't particularly matter between the few possible variances. Unless you do the henry twist. etc. Whatever. I'm done now.

riese said...

autumn m: You get an A for effort, kiddo. Roll on!

mindy: I believe in karma too, but I think not fate. The world is too unfair for anyone to deserve anything they get I think, across the board. But then somehow I feel there's some kind of cosmic plan . maybe it's more macro than that.

The way you describe oscar alienating himself through his fantasy world; I wonder if many passionate writers do the same thign. The versions of the people we put into print somehow begins to hold more weight than our actual impressions of the people themselves, the stories we tell become legends.

Re; the words -- both of those times. I love you. That's a good choice, I mean, good.

meghan: I like this: "Fate is a story our brains tell while looking into the past. " Actually i like that whole paragraph that that line is in. Yes, yes, yes, is all I can say; yes yes yes.

Someone should start a blog called x = chaos or a band called "x equals fate or chaos"

Sometimes I feel like the people who help other people the most are the same people who hurt themselves with seemingly merciless aggression.

I like your last paragraph too. Not counting the last sentence as a paragraph, 'cause it' just a sentence, so maybe I should say "your last full paragraph."

nep: I think people thought they had to answer my questions about fate for real.

That Sarte line is brilliant though, speaking of something that tries to answer a lot of questions.

I wonder what I'd put in my Mad Lib but I like that idea also the person above who had an idea about it being about love. Maybe that's the one I'd pick too, and I like that it's not a puzzle but a question, maybe.

I too got really upset when Oscar stopped running. I was like; you can change everything right now! Maybe he had to be an outcast, but I feel like when you're already jeapordized, you do what you can within reasonable limits (as in -- changing a lifestyle-induced obesity is reasonable, becoming anroexic to fit into unrealistic standards of an elite crowd isn't) to make things a little easier or you decide to stop wanting those things, I guess.

jd: You're so right ; about the suicide thing. And having had a good deal of first-hand experience with people in those situations (attempted suicide), I know that they don't just let people go home without psychiatric evaluations -- if you're a harm to others or to yourself, then it's pretty much the only situation in which they'll keep you. I assumed Oscar's family had told the doctors that it was an accident, not an attempted suicide.

I started agreeing with you about the immigrant families before getting to your point about anecdotal eveidence -- I agree 100% across the board. Children of first or second generation immigrants particular are far more intolerant of mental illness, depression, etc., far more tied into more traditional ideas of success and repressing emotions in favor of powering through. I've noticed this point blank across the board with every single friend I've had with immigrant parents who brought themselves up by metaphorical bootstraps. Also I'm sure it has something to do with the idea that like, when you've grown up in communist romania, your daughter's feelings about everything don't seem that important.

I think Lola is determined to make a difference in how things have gone for her familiy historically -- I think she's going to be a better mother than Beli. Or at least I hope so.

a;ex: Thank you for responding anyway. I love it. I actually have to agree with you, as you know -- I thought it was great but it was hard for me to think of things that it made me think about. Some stories crawl inside me and make a home for themselves. This story sat on the other side of the table, being super good and entertaining, but I didn't think we'd have much to talk about if we were left alone for too long.

I had that part underlined. about leaving Santo Domingo, and so on.

The Brooklyn Boy: Awesome, awesome, awesome. I feel like you're the one citing the strongest connection to a character in the book of anyone, and i feel like you're taking on Yunior's voice here, yes? It's funny 'cause I imagined a slam poet reading the book out loud 'cause it had that kind of rythym and cadence. Like your writing does, yannow?

I like lines like this:
When did I first know we were lying? Just now. Never. Always. All contradictory, all correct.

Also like the clairification of the girls you'd never call a girlfriend while you were dating. It's amazing how hard it is to become a girlfriend at the time, and then how easily I refer to them as exes when they're gone.

I like risk and impulse. I'm not sure if ... I'm not sure if I make a lot of calculcated choices., Maybe I don't make any. And .. you're welcome.

dorothy I like your typo of "happy" instad of "happen."
I think you're right too about Beli raising Lola to not be so codependent like she was. And then it's interesting that on the other side, Oscar yearns for the chance to be condependent, you know? The upbrining, it's like fate vs. fuku can also be nature vs. nurture. Anyhow i like everything you said and can just say, "word."

mercury: staying in school? (that's my best guess for hangman). I don't know "talking in workshop"? Hm. She told me I implied abortion, that's all I'll ever remember obviously.

Alex told me to read your first graf 'cause it's how she feels too, and I'd have to say I agree with both of you, that I don't know if I had any insights. I mean clearly I tried to come up with some insights anyhow and mabe I failed.

But you're right it's like something is so disappointing like monumentally so when it doesn't fill it all in for you at the time you want it to and then when you have soem space from it you're like, you know that wasn't a bad choice really after all, and maybe that's the same way we are with people.

The Brooklyn Boy said...

Thank ya. If I took over Yunior's voice, it was unintentional and merely a sign of subconscious respect for Junot Diaz, because I have wicked mimic tendencies when it comes to author's I like (see: Chuck Palahniuk; see also: Caitlin R. Kiernan). I've previously received the cadence comment about my writing -- one of the hardest things I had to break through as a poet was snapping my natural writing/speaking cadence, which is apparently heavier (more pronounced?) than it is for others. For the record, I def read parts of the book aloud because I liked the way his words felt in my mouth. Ha. That sounds dirty as all hell.

I liked that line too! Haha. Thanks. It's fun when other people appreciate your own favorites.

RE: the ex-es -- crazy, right? Effin a.

And my calculated decisions are ... more fluid and less well-reasoned than most, perhaps. Only person who has to be comfortable is me, you know?