The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Díaz

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Why does Yunior narrate the story about the Cabrals? What investment does he have in it? Silence dominates the novel; what are his silences? On page 172 he seems to understand Elvish, though he never admits his own nerdiness. He speaks about not getting much affection growing up; this obviously relates to how he treats women, but why does Diaz make him the narrator if he withholds so much about himself? To me, he seems like a foil and in other ways is similar to Oscar.

Yunior is a flawed narrator who reveals himself to be a man of contradictions and self-loathing. He hates Oscar's obsessions with old sci-fi movies, but tries to pass himself off as the ultimate cool guy. He loathes the old ways, but is still a Dominican male and recognises how harmful it can be to challenge that stereotype. Yunior's hypermasculinity seems at odds with his nerdy tendencies, which he suppresses in order to maintain his public persona.

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In Juno Diaz's novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Yunior narrates the story about the Cabrals to both illustrate the idea that a single perspective for any story is flawed by definition and to represent the necessity of "speaking truth to power." Junot Diaz, in a 2008 interview for Slate magazine (see link below), addresses directly the "danger" in allowing a lone voice to determine a narrative's, whether historical or fiction, definitive trajectory:

we all dream that there’s an authoritative voice out there that will explain things, including ourselves. If it wasn’t for our longing for these things, I doubt the novel or the short story would exist in its current form.

Yunior, who embodies the desire to be seen as a powerful hyper-sexual male in the Dominican tradition, while at the same time harboring contradictions, such as his obvious though intentionally suppressed "nerdy" tendencies that threaten this tradition, is an example of this danger. Expressing his disgust with Oscar's obsessions, Yunior asks:

Do you know what sign fool put up on our dorm door? Speak friend, and enter. In fucking Elvish! (Please don't ask me how I knew this. Please.) When I saw this I said: De Leon, you gotta be kidding. Elvish?

How can we consider completely reliable a narrator who almost consistently misrepresents himself in the interest of appearing as standard Dominican male as possible? Even in the company of Oscar, someone seemingly incapable of hiding his "uncool" interests, Yunior refuses to come clean about his own fascination with "the Genres."

At the same time, Diaz's flawed narrator, Yunior, also embodies the spirit and necessity of resisting the dark forces that work to undermine and destroy:

—until finally I woke up next to somebody I didn't give two shits about, my upper lip covered in coke-snot and coke-blood and I said, OK, Wao, OK. You win.

Ten years after Oscar's untimely death, Yunior makes the choice to challenge the long accepted, perpetuated, and harmful stereotype of what masculinity means in the Dominican community. Honoring Oscar's legacy by assuming the role of writer and teacher that Oscar could not, Yunior perhaps becomes the Zafa that will beat back against the tenacious and fearsome Fuku.

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A lot of Yunior's investment in narrating Oscar's story seems to be coming from his cultural background. He opens and closes the novel while talking about

Fukú americanus, or more colloquially, fukú—generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World.

Dominicans, whether from the Republic or from America, like Yunior, believe these curses can hang onto a family. Oscar's family, according to Yunior, was hit with fukú in a big way—enough to write an entire book narrating the generational curse. In order to combat fukú, you need zafa. A bit later on in the preface, Yunior says,

Even now as I write these words I wonder if this book ain't a zafa of sorts. My very own counterspell.

So I tend to think that, as much as Yunior is invested from his experiences with Oscar and his family, he feels in some way obligated to narrate the story as a part of his cultural heritage. He understands, as a Dominican, that fukú is a real threat regardless of whether readers believe in it. Therefore, it is in some way his duty to concoct a counter zafa to break the curse on Oscar's family so that future generations might not be hit with such bad luck.

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There are really three narrators in Diaz's novel: the old Yunior ("The Watcher"), Lola, and the young Yunior.  The old Yunior narrates most of the novel.  He's the one with all the footnotes.  Near the end of the novel, he calls himself "The Watcher" because he is an outsider (not in the Cabral family).

The novel must be narrated by an outsider, someone who's lived with Oscar and dated Lola, someone who's made since of this story over time, someone unaffected by Trujillo.  Yunior is very much like Junot Diaz himself: good-looking, confident, a closet nerd.  In only a short time, Yunior was forever changed by Oscar.  More importantly, he's lived to tell the tale; he's not been cursed.

The second chapter is narrated by Lola, her only narration.  Much like Addie's only narration in As I Lay Dying, the female voice is buried in this patriarchal culture.

The young Yunior only narrates the college chapters.  He doesn't footnote as much.  He's full of machismo and curses a lot.  He's got sex on the brain.  We can tell he doesn't like Oscar all that much.  Although the college chapters appear near the middle of the novel, they seem to have been written first.

Oscar's tragedy obviously affects the immature Yunior, to the point that he wants to finish what Oscar attempted--to be a writer and teacher.  Maybe he's not the next Tolkien, like Oscar wanted to be, but Yunior deftly blends all the voices into a post-modern collage of fantasy, tragedy, comedy, romance, and myth.

 

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