Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Style and Swagger in Junot Diaz's Prize-Winning Novel

My first thought upon reading this novel was: Oh, great, another novel without quotation marks. How kitsch.

I read on.

Then I came across the footnotes, some of which spanned three pages. Then the frequent sentence fragments. You know. Like these.

Then the change in narrators and shifts in points of view. Sure enough, Junot Diaz’s novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” contains all the gimmicks in the fiction writer’s handbook, and then some.

But these little games make sense within the context of Diaz ’s theory of the novel. This novel is all about style. Sure there are characters and a postmodern acid trip of a plot, but it seems Diaz has focused much of his time and energy on crafting a style that is uniquely his own. His writing draws inspiration from the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as well as the punk postmodernism of Kathy Acker. He bastardizes all sorts of literary genres and conventions to create something I call the literary middle finger. This novel is an act of literary defiance, a big “Fuck You!” not only to convention and tradition, but to the reader. I imagine Diaz sitting at his desk, reading an advanced copy of his own novel, chuckling to himself. “Well, fuckers, here it is. My artsy and profound novel. It’s clever as shit, bitches you know it! Gimme the fuckin’ Pulitzer already.”

Diaz’s overarching goal — in my opinion obviously — is to force a reaction from the reader. How exactly the reader reacts is less important than the reaction itself. Every good novel creates some sort of emotional, existential, sometimes even physical reaction in a reader. It’s what makes novels worth reading, and writing. But Diaz, in his own quirky bravado, sticks his readers right in the gut just to see how they’ll react. While not nearly as disturbing and violent as trangressive fiction writers like Brett Easton Ellis and Kathy Acker, Diaz’s novel shoots at many of the same targets. Sex, violence, gangsters, murder or bloodthirsty dictators appear on almost every page. It’s like Diaz set out to create a feeling of discomfort in the reader, to confuse the reader, and lastly to piss off the reader to no end.

Take the novel’s footnotes, for example. They serve the purpose of providing some background and historical information on the Dominican Republic, where about half of the novel takes place. But they frequently turn into continuous rants or streams of semi-consciousness. Reading a novel and simultaneously skipping around to read the bizarre footnotes is discombobulating for the reader, and I would not be surprised if many readers simply skipped over the footnotes altogether.

That said, and even though they can be frustrating, the footnotes add richness and complexity to the narrative. They just do. They become stories of their own. (Is it really a gimmick if the author pulls it off?)

Another important aspect of Diaz’s style is repetition, lots and lots of repetition. Lots and lots. Of. Repetition.

Here Diaz’s narrator…
  • On Trujillo, the Dominican dictator: “Trujillo was Mobutu before Mobutu was Mobutu.”
  • On the Dominican Republic’s capital city: “Santo Domingo was Iraq before Iraq was Iraq.”
  • On Trujillo, again: “the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated.”

Some of Diaz’s prose is overwritten and at times downright annoying. But it can also be very playful, hip and urban: “Negro, please!” He uses Spanish, English and everything in between. Diaz believes all language is open to use by anyone, and he does not accept restrictions on the use of language. So, for example,
he uses the word “nigger” more than Mark Twain and Tupac Shakur combined.

I’ve been going on about style, meanwhile you’re probably wondering what the book is about. Basically it’s about a fat nerdy kid who can’t get laid. Said fat nerdy kid is named Oscar, the son of Dominican immigrants living in Patterson, New Jersey, spending his time reading comic books, dreaming up sci-fi novels and not getting into ladies’ undergarments. But it’s also the story of the Dominican psycho dictator Trujillo and all his womanizing, terrorizing and bloodletting. It’s also the story of Oscar’s mother, sister and grandparents, all of whom may be cursed by something called the fuku. (It's hard to summarize the plot without a crazy diagram and timelines, but if you’re interested in a real summary, here you go.) Diaz does a masterful job of transporting the reader into the lives of Dominican exiles. His scenes are frequently intense, vivid and memorable; his characters fleshed out and fascinating. 

But style still reigns supreme. In true postmodern fashion, the novel dips in and out of points of view and back and forth between New Jersey and the Dominican Republic, spanning the course of several decades. Take all of this together, and what you get is an unmistakably unique reading experience. And in this day and age, that’s saying something. Diaz may be a somewhat of a dick, but he’s also smart and crafty. I read this book for a class I’m taking for my master’s in writing from Johns Hopkins University. We had a great time discussing the book for two class periods, totaling six hours. At the end there were still things to talk about. Some students were absolutely enchanted by the book. Others were infuriated. I was both. And in my mind, that makes a novel pretty damn good. Or, as Diaz might write, “It’s the novelest novel that ever noveled.”

All tricks aside, Diaz has an uncanny ability to portray human emotion, especially heartbreak. There’s a scene near the end of the novel that is so powerful and moving that it makes all frustrations with the novel seem irrelevant. In this scene Oscar has graduated from college and gotten a job teaching high school students. He is still a nerd and still a virgin. His students mock him, he has no friends, but he still has a heart. There is a still hope in this pathetic man. I won’t set up the scene any further because Diaz does it so well.

“In a burst of enthusiasm [Oscar] attempted to start a science-fiction and fantasy club, posted signs up in the halls, and for two Thursdays in a row he sat in his classroom after school, his favorite books laid out in an attractive pattern, listened to the roar of receding footsteps in the halls… then, after thirty minutes of nothing he collected his books, locked the room, and walked down those same halls, alone, his footsteps sounding strangely dainty.”

Bravo, Diaz.  

No comments:

Post a Comment