Monday, May 19, 2014

How Oscar Wao Traveled to Mordor, Battled Sauron and destroyed the Ring. Pop Culture, The Lord of the Rings and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

         Junot Díaz’s first full length novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is critically one of the most praised novels of the new millennia but it’s also one giant pop culture reference. The book has over two hundred references to pop culture, history, writers, and novels from multiple genres that span several decades. The biggest references are towards J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings which parallels much of the novel. Though the novel isn’t so much about the life and untimely death of the title character but more about a family history that goes back three generations the backgrounds themselves are filled with references to different times in the lives of this family. Under all of the historical knowledge about dictators and comic book characters there’s also a reference to a curse that many of the characters believe has plagued the family since the early twentieth century. The references to popular culture in the novel serve as a way for readers to be able to identify with the situations of the characters and the time in history they’re all significant a part of. The three youngest characters in the story exemplify the differences in the references as well as connect the tyranny of a dictator to the a modern day pop culture reference.

         If Oscar de León was born in the 1980’s and grew up in the age of millennial’s then he wouldn’t have felt left out but sadly Oscar was born in the late 1960’s before being a nerd was cool, when it was seen as uncool to like things such as sci-fi novels, comic books and dungeons and dragons. Carlos Hernandez’s wrote about the ideal reader of the novel as “someone well-read in literary classics (not just English and American, but Caribbean and South American as well); who has manically consumed genre fiction from childhood on, making a point to reread everything Tolkien has ever written every five years or so; who has more than a passing familiarity with the New World dictators of the Spanish-speaking world, with an especial focus on the Failed Cattle Thief (Trujillo); who knows a great deal of Spanish, the more the better, and the more Dominican the better; and who has an encyclopedic knowledge of American popular culture from at least the 1950s to now, including but not limited to comic books, movies, video games, television, RPGs, and anime.” Though Hernandez’s judgment about the type of reader isn’t that farfetched it’s also ideally a description of Oscar himself who after two heartbreaks at the tender age of seven thinks he’s cursed and an anti-girl magnet, because most boys are chasing after girls that early in life. After this Oscar becomes different from what the typical Dominican males is supposed to be like, instead of chasing girls around and having multiple girls surrounding him at all times Oscar embraces the nerd life by writing constantly, reading anything he can find, and playing D&D with his friends. Though during an S.A.T. course he does make one friend that he falls for she doesn’t return his feelings and eventually leads Oscar to his first near suicidal encounter much like how Frodo first puts the ring on, Oscar teeters on the edge of darkness. His attempts at relationships with girls always end in his heartbreak and his ability to end up in a life or death situation though after his second failed relationship and a failed suicide attempt Oscar tells his former roommate Yunior that he’s “regenerated” and declare that he’s going to be the “Dominican Tolkien.” (192) Which could have been possible if not for his third attempt at a relationship which would ultimately become the cause of the end of his short life.
         On the other side of the cultural pond is Oscar’s older sister Lola who starts off as a young girl who helping around the house and with the family. Like most Latin-American girls she was responsible for helping out with cooking and cleaning as well as obeying the rules but this all changes after her mother receives the diagnosis that she has cancer. Daniel Bautista’s article on “Comic Book Realism” describe Lola’s change saying “Lola will take on the trappings of Goth “culture” and identity in the US in order to help sustain herself in her constant struggle against Beli’s strict and domineering mothering.” (50) Culturally Lola’s transformation is more in tune with the culture of the rock music movement that had taken control during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s like her brother she was ahead of the times when it comes down to their taste in pop culture. As with many children of immigrants it has become common that they would differ from their parents culturally and try to find their place in the world based on what they attain from friends and school verses what their old school parents would try and teach them. Where Lola differs from her brother is in her ability to realize what she can gain and what she has to lose as an individual.
         The person in between the two siblings and the one who narrates most of the novel is Yunior who is the opposite of Oscar. Yunior is the epitome of the Dominican male he has a girlfriend and girls chasing him, he can get with any girl he wants except the one he truly wants to be with and that is Lola. He would do almost anything for her at the drop of a hat except the two things he knows would make her happy the first is to protect Oscar and help him whenever possible and the second is that he wouldn’t cheat on Lola. Since Yunior isn’t capable of staying grounded on his relationships with women that request is out of the question even though he truly loves Lola. Instead he becomes the one true friend that Oscar has throughout his life; he encourages him whenever he can and helps out when the going gets tough and Oscar returns the favor by encouraging Yunior to write more. Through Oscar’s influence Yunior becomes an English teacher once he’s out of college. Even though it seems like Yunior is just another reference to the regular male and would torment people just like Oscar the pair also have many similarities. In a surprising way he liked some of the same things that Oscar did and even knew that the sign Oscar had put up on the door to their dorm was Elvish for “Speak friend, and enter.” (192) He would also watch movies such as Akira and Appleseed with Oscar and also have him read his stories. Even though Yunior couldn’t stop Oscar’s spiral that year he was still the one who told the story of the life of Oscar which meant that the two shared a relationship that was as close as a fellowship.
         If this novel was written as one of Oscar’s many unpublished books then the central villain of the story would be the life and legacy of Rafael Trujillo as known as El Jefe. Even though Trujillo was once President of the Dominican Republic before he took over as dictator of the country and ruled until his death in 1961. In the article The Many Languages of Oscar Wao the author makes the connection between the novel and real life saying, “So when Diaz calls Trujillo “our Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid,” he isn’t trying to make the dictator more relatable or realistic to American readers, but more unfamiliar, more inhuman.” The reference to Sauron isn’t that farfetched because even after his death the plague of his legacy continues on in the Dominican Republic which is notable in the way that Oscar’s demise parallels what happened to his mother when she was pregnant at sixteen and was confronted with Trujillo’s sister La Fea who was married to Beni’s lover. Bautista article also notes the similarities to the Tolkien world and how it’s similar to the situation in the Dominican Republic, “Yunior’s frequent comparisons of Trujillo to Sauron, the Evil One, and his main henchman to Nazgûl, ringwraiths, and other baleful creatures created by Tolkien, as well as his comparison of the Dominican Republic in general to the land of Mordor, for example, are an effective expression of his sense of the outsized evil of the Dominican dictator’s regime.” (46)
         If Trujillo is Sauron then that would make Oscar, Frodo Baggins the one destined to destroy the ring and end the curse that has been brought upon the land. The curse in Oscar’s life is the same one that plagues his family, the fuku that has followed them around since Oscar’s grandfather Abelard and his encounter with Trujillo. El Jefe’s main love was his ability to get all the best looking girls for himself he “Believed that all the toto in DR was, literally, his. It’s a well-documented fact that in Trujillo’s DR if you were of a certain class and you put your cute daughter anywhere near El Jefe, within the week she’d be mamando his ripio like an old pro and there would be nothing you could do about it!” (217) For Abelard this was a problem especially since his eldest daughter had become a teenager and grown into a full on beauty. He tried to keep her away but one ill said phrase landed him in jail for eighteen years of torture under the rule of Trujillo and when his youngest daughter was born she would be what cast the final stone in the curse that would follow the family long after Trujillo’s demise. The curse is the one ring to rule them all and since Oscar is this story’s Frodo it would be with his demise that the curse on the family would finally be lifted. Before Oscar died he would take one more journey back to the Dominican Republic into the heart of the place that cursed his family so long ago. At first Oscar didn’t believe in the curse but once he accepted it in the cane fields after being beaten by the friends of the Captain who was involved with the woman Oscar was in love with he accepted his fate. Oscar wouldn’t be deterred from his love and would return to the Dominican Republic and confess his love living through the same fate his mother did for loving someone else’s lover. The only difference between Oscar’s experience and his mother is that he went back and faced his love and together she gave him the one thing he sought after all of his live and that is the love of someone who truly loved him back. The problem with this is that Oscar’s love was already taken and he was once again face to face with the same men who had beaten him and left him for dead in the cane fields. This time Oscar faced the curse head on and was at peace with himself when he met his demise while breaking the curse on the family.
         The end of Oscar and the end of the novel leaves a lot of unanswered questions as to the future of the family and whether the curse was truly lifted. The best way to define the story of Oscar, his family and the future is from a quote of one of Oscar’s favorite movies “Akira” in which the character Kiyoko says “The future is not a straight line. It is filled with many crossroads. There must be a future that we can choose for ourselves.” Their lives weren’t chosen by them they lived and died by a curse they believed existed instead of casting it aside and moving on with their lives. Much of the pop culture references of the story can attest to this because many of the characters and stories that Oscar loved so much shows their resilience and ability to cope with a situation as it comes along. Junot Díaz probably knew that a story set in a world where the characters had to fight for their lives and move through the crossroads of their lives would embody the strengths as well as weaknesses of the characters. His use of references to popular culture and how it plays with the character’s daily lives and the journey that they are on is at best a way for readers who weren’t raised in a Caribbean family and didn’t know about what had happened to have the ability to understand the overall story.

Works Cited
  • Akira. Dir. Katsuhiro Ohtomo. Perf. Nozomu Sasaki, Mami Koyama, Mitsuo Iwata., TMS Entertainment, Akira Committee Company Ltd., Bandai, 1988. Animated Film. DVD
  • Bautista, Daniel. "Comic Book Realism: Form and Genre in Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 21.1 (2010).
  • Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead, 2007. Print.
  • Hernandez, Carlos. "Oscar Wao: Murdering Machismo." The Interstitial Arts Foundation. The Interstitial Arts Foundation, Apr. 2011. Web. 10 May 2014.
  • "The Many Languages of Oscar Wao." Web log post. Writtennotrote. Wordpress, 28 Sept. 2011. Web. 18 May 2014.