Halfway through me watching a season five episode of Game of Thrones, my brother walked in the room and stood still with his eyes glued to the TV. He had never seen the show so he must’ve felt more than a little lost in the shuffle of the ensemble cast set in this fantasy world. When the characters aren’t talking, they’re having sex or torturing each other – very regularly. They say things like “Seven Hells,” “By the old gods and the new,” and “Fuck the dragonglass.” Naturally my brother had questions about what he was watching.
“Who is that?
“And who is he?”
“He’s the other guy’s slave.”
“Why is he a slave?”
“Because the other guy cut his dick off?”
I thought back a few seasons, back when Reek was Theon Greyjoy, an incomplete person (all dick, or lack thereof, jokes aside) who was taken from his home in the Iron Islands as a baby to be the ward for the Stark family in Winterfell; how he never felt at home there so he returned to the Iron Islands only to be treated as traitorous outsider by his father, the king, who had given him up in the first place; how he was sent on a mission back to Winterfell to prove his loyalty, driven to torture and kill out of a desire to be accepted by his people; how he was betrayed by his countrymen when he at last believed he had won their respect; and how he was given to Ramsey Snow who proceeded to torture and castrate him not only for his crimes, but because Ramsey enjoyed his suffering. I thought of this tormented, displaced character who never could get it right and how utterly tragic that was. But that was just one character in the entire Game of Thrones world of Westeros – not to mention the lands beyond it. To sum up such a comprehensive history in matter of seconds just to answer a simple “Who’s that?” question wouldn’t be answering it at all. You can’t show someone a sled without context and say, ”Here: this is Citizen Kane.”
“Ya know you just have to watch from the beginning to get the full scope,” I told my brother.
It’s difficult explaining a different world to someone who is just dropping in right in the middle of its story. You have to immerse yourself in the beginning to understand the trials of the character.
That’s how I felt when I tried reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz the first time. I thought a basic knowledge of the novel’s settings of New Jersey and the Dominican Republic was all I needed to dive right into to Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize winning debut novel. But his New Jersey and his Dominican Republic are separate worlds of their own. I had to immerse myself in the beginning to get the full scope.
Junot Díaz is the author of two short story collections, Drown and This Is How You Lose Her, that act as bookends to Oscar Wao (Drown was released in 1996, Oscar Wao in 2007, and Lose Her in 2012.) With the exception of a few passages in Oscar Wao, the narrator for all of these works is the fictional Yunior de las Casas, who immigrated from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic to New Jersey in the late 70s.
My advice: get to know Yunior and his worlds in these collections first, then take on Oscar Wao. You’ll be glad you did.
The short story collections, mainly Drown, are Yunior’s telling of his immigrant upbringing in America, shedding light on a reality that is all too easy to overlook. It wasn’t just simply he came to America and assimilated seamlessly into achieving the American Dream as we would like to believe. There were harsh realities to endure, stigmas to overcome – and even after those were dealt with, there were still no guarantees of success. Leaving behind his homeland, no matter how impoverished, and being inserted into America, no matter how promising, left scars on not only Yunior but those he meets in Díaz’s stories. They are consummate dream chasers who seem to have plateaued at mere survival. The curse of their diaspora.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the richest, most complex, longest arching, and most exciting of all three of Diaz’s books – but it’s a difficult book to take on if you’re not familiar with Yunior. Oscar Wao is Avengers: Infinity War: you’re going to be lost if it’s your first foray into this world.
Though Yunior is the narrator, he is not the subject of the novel. The protagonist is Oscar de León – obese, socially awkward, entrenched in nerd culture, and the unluckiest Dominican trying to land girls. But it may not be his fault. It could be the fukú, a curse that has plagued his family for generations in the Dominican Republic and followed them all the way to New Jersey. Yunior volunteers to live with Oscar to increase his confidence as a way of winning back Oscar’s sister, Lola. He takes a singular interest in Oscar and how “very un-Dominican” he seems. Yunior tells us Oscar’s story, the story of Beli, Oscar’s mother, and the story of Abelard, Oscar’s grandfather. Why this much detail for the story of one character? Because it gives us a panoramic view of a country’s ugly yet enthralling past bridging itself to the present and crashing down on poor Oscar’s head – and believe me when I say it all works magnificently. Okay, so how does Yunior learn Oscar’s familial history dating back to 1944? You’ll have to read and find out.
Now since Drown was published first, I’d say read it first (though my first completed Díaz book was Lose Her.) Drown introduces us to Yunior in the short story “Ysrael” at nine-years-old with his older brother, Rafa in the Dominican Republic visiting a boy whose face had been disfigured by a pig when he was an infant. “Ysrael” paints us a portrait of a derelict Dominican Republic with rundown shacks and dirt roads and kids running around with joyous recklessness. This is Díaz’s DR: poor, with a long-neglected infrastructure but also a wide open plain of possibility for a young boy’s imagination. Yunior and Rafa embark on a journey to see the fabled boy with half a face eaten by a pig with an enthusiasm that’s shades of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
The next story, “Fiesta, 1980,” shows us the contrast of Yunior’s life in America. He, Rafa, his younger sister Madai, his mother, and his father travel to their tio’s in the Bronx for a party. Yunior here is more timid and motivated by fear of his father, trying (and failing) not to anger him. “I was like my God-given duty to piss him off, to do everything the way he hated.” His father, Ramón, had been in America five years before sending for his family; now they were all there, Yunior feels as though his father is a stranger and he had left his home to come to this foreign country to live with that stranger. Ramón warns Yunior not to throw up in his new Volkswagen on the way to the Bronx. Yunior noted, “Every time I was in that VW and Papí went above twenty miles an hour, I vomited. I’d never had that trouble with cars before – that van was like my curse.” To come of age in both a near-lawless DR and a strict patriarchal America left Yunior often confused and feeling incomplete. He suddenly threw up in cars with his father without knowing why.
This Is How You Lose Her is Díaz’s second short story collection, released five years after the amazing success of Oscar Wao. This collection leans heavier toward Yunior’s struggles with love, commitment, and self-improvement. His struggles with the opposite sex are not Oscar’s: Yunior has no problems getting laid – it’s everything after. Yunior tells stories of the girls he’s shared experiences with over the years in DR and New Jersey. Magda, Alda, Nilda, Veronica, Miss Lora – all have loved and left Yunior, a self-confessed cheater. Yunior begins this collection with “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars,” trying to get you on his side for the coming tales of his constant infidelities. “I’m like everyone else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good.” You read the stories of his negligent missteps with growing empathy.
It’s been long suggested that Yunior is a fictionalized version of Díaz himself. Lose Her brings Diaz’s real life sins to the forefront through Yunior’s “toxic masculinity.”
Díaz has faced much criticism regarding the representation of women in his works – how they are seen as only physical objects that cause heartache for his flawed male protagonist. While these criticisms are well-founded, they don’t consider the point of Yunior: his understanding of women is, according to Díaz, “pretty fucking limited.” Lose Her shows his journey to understand how love is best preserved, rather than abused. He becomes more overwhelmed with sadness with each doomed relationship. It is in the final story of Lose Her, “The Cheater’s Guide To Love,” where we learn just how regretful Yunior is, how his “lying cheater’s heart” cost him chances at happiness. He writes down a name of a ex-girlfriend and next to it a brief heartbroken lover’s lament: “the half-life of love is forever.” Yunior carries with him forever his sorrow, the claws of love and loss firmly dug into him, learning how best to bear the weight.
Junot Díaz was in the news recently with a tragic account of his experience with sexual assault published in The New Yorker. This account would serve not as an excuse, but rather an explanation as to how and why someone like Diaz would be abusive toward others. It gives the reader a well-rounded view of Yunior, or at least Díaz’s interpretation of him. It gives the reader deeper insight to Oscar’s tragic shortcomings with finding love. Díaz’s confessions of his traumas, his sins, his experience, his passions, his labors, and his losses all lend themselves to his writing. It brings you about as full-circle as you could ever hope to come with a prolific author.
Why you should read Junot Díaz: His narrative style is an exciting blend of English and Spanish (and pop culture terminologies in Oscar Wao), steadily reminding you that the storyteller is a person of two worlds. His themes deal in family, love, loss, and the promise of the American dream – all authentic. Oscar Wao is your end goal, your final season of Game of Thrones, to see how characters who have traveled far and suffered plenty fare in their chase for better lives. You learn just why certain people of different nationalities cling to their past, for better or worse. The immigrant success story of America is a fantastic one, but it’s not always pretty – there’s plenty of internal struggles along the way. And it makes for great reading.
We don’t yet know how Theon Greyjoy will fare, but we know he struggled with how he identified himself. Was he a Greyjoy of the Iron Islands or an ally to the Starks? Last we saw him, he decided he could be both – a fully realized person, learning to bear the weight of his sins, purposeful and determined. And all without a dick.