How Yunior's Narrative In 'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao' Acts As An Archival History

09/18/2012 01:23 pm ET | Updated Nov 18, 2012

The first time I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I was a freshman journalism major in his first quarter at Northwestern University. Two majors, three years and many pages later (both read and written), it's still one of my favorites. Sophomore year, when I began my undergraduate research for a fellowship program, Oscar Wao seemed like the place to start--I was new to research, and they tell you to do work that interests you, right? With Oscar Wao, there were plenty of interests: The allusions to W. B. Yeats and Joseph Conrad; the pervasive references to works of sci-fi and fantasy that I too devoured; a chance to explore my own Latino heritage (I'm Mexican-American, on my father's side, and grew up in San Antonio, with a Latino population over 50%).

Starting my research that summer between sophomore and junior year, I found myself drawn to a completely different aspect of the novel--the narrative itself. Voice, structure, it all was most intriguing to me. Yunior's casual, sarcastic, yet earnest input stuck with me. Now, beginning my thesis work in Comparative Literary Studies, Oscar Wao remains a key influence on my research interest. How the novel presents a narrative is the foundation for my thesis work in contemporary Latin American fiction. I've proposed that these narratives act as historical archives, preserving experiences otherwise lost or ignored. As self-aware as the novel is, it's no surprise that Yunior acknowledges this practiced ignorance, directing a summary of the Trujillo dictatorship to "those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history" - I can't be sure any of my high school history classes even devoted that much time to Dominican history, and we won "Best in the World" designations for our AP scores.

If that criticism wasn't obvious enough, he drops this gem later in another footnote: "Oh, you didn't realize we were occupied twice in the 20th Century? Don't worry, when you have kids, they won't know that the U.S. occupied Iraq, either."

On some level, it's fair to say that Oscar Wao is an attempt to undermine the censorship and lies of the Trujillo regime; Yunior calls it his own zafa, the counter-curse to the fúku that is so closely intertwined to the influence of the Trujillato; but its subversion doesn't
end there. Yunior's color commentary above is directed at the U.S., his adopted home, and a culture that has equal agency in marginalizing the experience of these post-colonial immigrants.

There's an ironic switch that takes place in the narrative too. The word parigüayo, party-watcher, is used as a derogatory nickname for the U.S. occupation forces, as well as Oscar. Yet the most prominent act of watching is done by Yunior himself, to the point that he calls himself The Watcher, comparing himself to the Marvel comic book character of the same name, serving as our guide through this relatively unknown history, and perhaps the most appropriate guide for the post-colonial experience. Yunior says as much when he name-drops the cultural critic Edouard Glissant--a brief allusion in a book that drops cultural references like an SNL skit. But for its brief mention, there's a lot that Glissant's writings can contribute to the reading of Oscar Wao. That relationship between the two texts is the basis for my master's thesis work. Yunior discusses his affinity for The Watcher as a result of Caribbeans, according to Glissant, "residing on la face cachee de la Terre (Earth's hidden face)." In the passage the book is referencing, Glissant goes on to say how these people on Earth's hidden face are fighting against "the hegemony of History with a capital H and Literature consecrated by the power of the absolute sign." Glissant's new proposition for literature's role in this conflict? Providing insight to the "lived experiences" of individuals. That's where my research comes in. I see Oscar Wao's narrative as an archive of these lived experiences, the subaltern response to the dominance of a Western historical canon that leaves only two seconds for the study of Dominican history, or conveniently forgets its occupations of other countries.

Furthermore, Yunior contextualizes them by repurposing aspects of Western culture--popular (the sci-fi and fantasy references) and intellectual (allusions to Yeats and Conrad). The narrative demands a new position for this previously ignored history by emphasizing the individual stories. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao uses the individual to transition these cultural groups from the realm of the subaltern to the canon--removing the capitalization from history and literature, to paraphrase Glissant.

Where do we go from here? Personally, I'm following this thread, examining the role of archiving in the narrative of contemporary Latin American fiction. It's fascinating to see how these pieces tell their stories, how they push these stories to the fore of Western consideration. Since reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I've developed an appreciation for the theory behind literature, how the structure and style of the narrative itself (not just the content) can make equal contributions to the text's function. Northwestern Spanish professor Lucille Kerr wrote that Latin American literature is known for its "experimental, sometimes revolutionary" styles, and this book doesn't disappoint on that front. The potential ramifications of works like this for cultural studies as a whole are immense in both scope and impact. And for a literary theory nerd like myself, that's pretty exciting.

One final note: In my research, one piece in particular has thus far stood out. For those of you that enjoyed Oscar Wao, I sincerely recommend Las Películas de Mi Vida (The Movies of My Life) by Chilean author Alberto Fuguet. It's written in Spanish, with translations available; the strong narrative voice and pop culture references should feel immediately familiar.