(about halfway through “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”)
Tim: So this book fooled me a little. I figured a book called The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao would, you know, follow Oscar. Totally unprepared for chapters about other people.
Debby: I gotta agree with you there. I don’t even see why Oscar is the most important character amongst the cast!
Tim: It’s weird, right? He’s kind of a sad sack. I’m in the middle of the chapter about Beli, his mother, right now, and she’s way more interesting. Although the other thing I’ve noticed is that this book has managed to keep me very entertained so far while having really very little that seems…I don’t know, story-worthy? It’s so mundane. Which is part of the point, sure, but it’s back to the point. The narrator has as much as told us that Oscar doesn’t have much talent at writing, which is the only thing he really seems to care about (besides the ever-elusive dream of sex). What’s so wondrous about that?
Debby: Sad sack? What kind of turn of phrase is that, Tim? Oscar does seem rather pathetic, but not outlandishly so. He’s the character I’ve found easiest to understand, the most “relatable” to some degree. He’s a nerd, an outcast, overweight, single… these are all problems I’ve struggled with at some point. I feel like the rest of his family has experienced hardships that I haven’t encountered, and therefore I find them fascinating, but not necessarily as “real” as Oscar. Regardless, I do think Beli is one of the more interesting characters in the novel. I just finished a chapter that finally provides an answer to her oft referenced scars. I think that’s one way the author keeps us “entertained”– he alludes to pain and difficulties that have shaped each character, but doesn’t give us the full story at once. There’s a sense of building, rather than just knowing.
Tim: Yes, I very much like that building feeling, it’s part of what’s kept my interest high. I like seeing a character, like Beli especially, from someone like Lola’s eyes, then seeing her from a more objective point of view. For me personally, I disagree about Oscar, though it’s an entirely subjective assessment. Oscar seems the most cartoonish character to me. He’s so extreme in all his character traits that I have trouble pinning down which aspects are real and which must surely be fabrication. But I think it’s super interesting – because that’s a subjective assessment – that he’s the one you found most real. I remember (and this is going to make me sound like a privileged, unaware elitist asshole, but it’s a real story so I offer it in good faith) back in probably fourth or fifth grade, I was in Sunday School and our teacher was asking us about the social strata at our school. I don’t remember the exact question, but I think I said something to the effect of, “I don’t see the school society as being made up of popular and unpopular,” and a friend of mine just looked at me and laughed in a way that said 100%, “Yeah, you don’t worry about it because you’re one of the popular kids.” Which to be completely honest was news to me. I definitely noticed stuff like that later in school, but I didn’t at that time, and it probably has a lot to do with the fact that I was successful in my environment. So maybe I just have trouble relating to the early teen Oscar
Debby: Fine. Well for every COOL kid like you, Tim, there was a miserable little nerd like me. I distinctly remember 6th grade being the absolute worst: I was chubby, wore big, round glasses, had braces (with rubber bands straddling my gums), and was reading through Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series as if my life depended on it. Nerd central. I was so “horrid” that the two girls I carpooled with decided to take me on as a Project. They took me shopping, made me watch “cool” movies and listen to “cool” music. I was perfectly content to hide away in my little nook between my bed and the far wall, reading with a flashlight late into the night. But, like Oscar’s college roommate, they weren’t going to give up. At some point during my middle school years, I edged into normalcy (this had more to do with the fact that I grew several inches and joined the track team than anything else). I still kept up with my books, but looked less like a librarian once I got contacts and lost the metal in my mouth.
All I’m trying to emphasize is that Oscar doesn’t seem cartoonish to me. His plight seems very relatable. He’s got all the odds against him and this makes him act even more pathetic. But that still doesn’t make him interesting.
Tim: I guess the distinction I see is that his plight seems realistic, but his character doesn’t seem real. Or at least threadbare in several spots. In that there are a million things about him which are identifiable, but the way they’re all pursued simultaneously to sort of their worst possible end makes him difficult to picture as a single human being. He’s a character I can envision, but there’s some flaws in his characterization (at least as I see it). But back to the original point, we’re still no closer to identifying why this is about Oscar, other than he maybe has the largest potential arc.
Debby: Okay here’s a theory. We’ve talked about how “fuku” and Dominican culture resonate with elements of fantasy literature. What if this book is about Oscar because he is the nerd who actually understands that it’s all connected? Does that make sense?
Tim: Makes sense, we just haven’t seen if it’s so quite yet. Maybe that’ll prove prophetic!