Textual Territory and Narrative Power in Junot Diaz's the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

By Patteson, Richard | ARIEL, July-October 2011 | Go to article overview

Textual Territory and Narrative Power in Junot Diaz's the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao


Patteson, Richard, ARIEL


I.

In numerous discussions of The Brief Wondrous Lift of Oscar Wao conducted during interviews and public appearances, Junot Diaz has repeatedly suggested and even stated outright that readers should consider the relationship between authority exercised in the world at large and that of a story's narrator. "Isn't storytelling," he asks, "the desire to put everything about the world in your power?" (Diaz, "Junot Diaz Redefines Macho"). Although he claims his intention is to draw attention to "the dangers of the single voice" (Diaz, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: Questions for Junot Diaz"), Diaz, following the practice of many writers who discuss their books publicly, continues to exemplify that voice by attempting to shape how the novel is read. He insists that "Yunior's telling of this story and his unspoken motivations for it are at the heart of the novel" (Diaz, "Junot Diaz Redefines Macho"), but it might also be said that the interviews, and Din's unspoken motivations for them, are equally central. An author's compulsion to control does not necessarily end with publication. Like his narrator Yunior (and perhaps like all narrators), Diaz is torn between the competing needs to challenge authority and to exercise it. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao attempts to acknowledge and incorporate this internal struggle; it incorporates the struggle's most paradoxical feature, the notion that the act of telling is itself an exercise of power, into the deepest design of the novel.

Even before he begins to tell Oscar's story, Yunior frames it in a way that both reflects his own ambivalence toward authority and places it in an historical, and quasi-mythic, context. The book's first epigraph, "Of what import are brief, nameless lives ... to Galactus?" is spoken by one of the uber-villains of the science fiction comic book world. Not incidentally, Galactus addresses Uatu the Watcher and sometime Teller, whose mission is to stand guard over Earth without interfering. Uatu occasionally does intervene, however, most notably to protect Earth from the godlike Galactus. Yunior, who has watched over Oscar intermittently and perhaps intervened too seldom, finds it useful to identify with Uatu: "It's almost done. Almost over. Only some final things to show you before your Watcher fulfills his cosmic duty and retires at last to the Blue Area of the Moon" (Diaz, Oscar Wao 329). Moreover, the book's title, chosen by Yunior himself (285), is a clear refutation of Galactus' words. In the second epigraph, an excerpt from Derek Walcott's poem "The Schooner Flight" the narrator, Shabine, a man with "a sound colonial education" (350), talks back to history and, as Yunior tries to do, to the tyrannies imposed by colonialism. Understanding that "all them bastards have left us" is "words" (Walcott 350), Shabine makes the most of the situation and uses language to construct an identity and textual space for himself that is his own "nation." For Yunior, however, the effort is complicated by his own narrative's genesis within the totalitarian history written by the Dominican Galactus, Rafael Trujillo.

Diaz knows well that dictators in the real world can be highly accomplished storytellers. In Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat, the breaking point for one of Trujillo's assassins occurs when the dictator attacks the Church, turning himself into one of Satan's most effective allies" (187), a dark god who, like Satan, usurps the prerogatives of the Almighty. The tyrant not only terrorized, imprisoned, and murdered countless Dominicans, but also subverted and erased their sense of identity, attempting "to take away the stories [they] told about themselves" (Patteson 233) and thus strip them of cognitive and physical control of their lives. This erasure, the most fundamental of his crimes, had its origin in his power to reformulate the whole narrative of the Dominican Republic with himself as both author and superhero--Father of the New Fatherland. …

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