Monday, November 26, 2018

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz was written in 2007. It won the Pulitzer prize for fiction and numerous other awards. It is included in several lists of best books of the 21st century. At least one list rated it as the best.

I loved this book but it may not appeal to some readers as it is full of references to both popular and obscure science fiction and related genres. In addition to these references, there are major connections to Frank Herbert’s Dune, JRR Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings and the comic book series The Watchman. I have read both the Herbert and Tolkien books. I read the Wikipedia entry on The Watchman to help me with this book.

Much of the narrative covers the life of Oscar de León. Oscar is a young Dominican man growing up and going to college in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. These parts of the book also concern themselves with Oscar’s sister, Lola, and her boyfriend, Yunior. Some chapters cover Oscar’s mother, Beli, growing up in the Dominican Republic in the 1960s, and still others cover his grandfather, Abelard, a doctor in the Dominican Republic during the 1940s and 1950s. 

Oscar is a social outcast who is obsessed with science fiction, fantasy and other speculative books, film and television. Oscar has a terrible time adjusting to society. The depiction of him is detailed, complex and believable. At one point, his school years are described, 

“High school was Don Bosco Tech, and since Don Bosco Tech was an urban all-boys Catholic school packed to the strakes with a couple hundred insecure hyperactive adolescents, it was, for a fat sci-fi–reading nerd like Oscar, a source of endless anguish. For Oscar, high school was the equivalent of a medieval spectacle, like being put in the stocks and forced to endure the peltings and outrages of a mob of deranged half-wits, an experience from which he supposed he should have emerged a better person, but that’s not really what happened—and if there were any lessons to be gleaned from the ordeal of those years he never quite figured out what they were. He walked into school every day like the fat lonely nerdy kid he was, and all he could think about was the day of his manumission, when he would at last be set free from its unending horror”

There is a lot more to Oscar. He experiences love, rejection, terrible bouts of depression, and he sometimes acts surprisingly. He philosophizes a great deal and develops a lot as a character. His family members and friends, especially Lola and Yunior, are also very complex and believable. 

The parts of the book that focus on Oscar’s grandfather, Abelard, are tragic. Rafael Trujillo was the real-life dictator of the Dominican Republic during Abelard’s time. As per the book and some other sources that I have read, he was more brutal and controlling than the average dictator. According to this novel, among his outrages was the fact that he had a habit of personally raping young girls throughout the Dominican Republic. In an effort to protect his daughter from Trujillo, Abelard brings destruction to himself and to his family. 

The chapters that describe Beli’s adolescence in the 1960s paint the picture of a rebellious but naive young girl whose affair with a government operative draws the wrath of the powerful man’s wife. Beli is beaten and terrorized by the police and thus forced to flee to America.

The dialogue between characters ranges from funny to profound to heart breaking. The parts that take place in the later twentieth century contain a fair amount of Spanglish as well as a lot of profanity. 

Most, but not all, of the chapters are told in first person by Yunior, who is a multifaceted and nuanced character in his own right. Diaz has included his character in other books and stories that I have not read. Yunior also seems to be interested in science fiction/fantasy and comic books, so he fills the entire narrative with such references as well as references to some classic literature. Other chapters are narrated by Lola. There are also a lot of footnotes where the author chimes in about both the real world and the fictional story. 

There is something odd going on throughout the book. This peculiarity seems to be similar to magical realism. However, the magical realism in this book seems different from any other novels that I have read that incorporated the technique. This oddness seems to dig into the way that the author sees some basic human truths about violence, despair, gender, colonialism and more.

Early on it is mentioned by the narrator that Oscar’s family has a curse hanging over it. We learn in the book that in Dominican culture, this kind of curse is known as Fukú. The narrator, usually Yunior, takes a mostly ambivalent attitude as to whether he believes in the curse or not. However, at one point, he makes the case for it as he points out that throughout the years, the de León’s have had terrible fortune that seems to go beyond mere coincidence. This bad luck has led to terrible violence and death. Luckily there is a counterforce in that throughout the narrative, characters, especially the women, seem to use a kind of white magic. Some of them have a power of their own. This positive force is called zafa in the book, and according to Yunior, it is part of Dominican culture. 

Diaz takes this even further in a very unusual way. As mentioned earlier, the book is packed with references to science fiction, fantasy, comic books etc. The characters that exist in the 1940s and 1950s seem to be familiar with Frank Herbert’s novel Dune as they make several references to it, even though Dune was written in 1965. Furthermore, Oscar’s aunt La Inca and other women in the book seem to have zafa-related powers that are strongly connected the powers that some female characters had in Herbert’s book. With these important references to Dune, I might recommend that a reader try that book before reading this one. 

There is more. After the story of Abelard is related, an alternate version of events is told. In this version, Abelard is writing a book that exposed Trujillo as a nonhuman, evil creature from another world. When the dictator discovered Abelard’s plans to publish his expose, a curse was put on the entire de León family. 

In an hour of darkest peril, Beli believes that she was helped by a talking mongoose that was a messenger from God. Though the reader is not sure if this is a figment of imagination or not, years later, Oscar is helped by the same mongoose when he is near death. Both Beli in her time and Oscar encounter a malevolent faceless man. Thus, there seems to be a mystical conflict going on between the forces of violence and chaos and the forces of nonviolence and benevolence. As I mentioned above, there is a strong connection between these benevolent forces and the feminine powers. Perhaps the author seems to be saying that it is women who play the predominate role in opposing violence and chaos in the world.

I read just a little bit online about the symbolism behind fukú, and the consensus is that it relates to colonialism. I agree that there are indications in the narrative that this is the case. However, I think that it is also representing something more universal, that is, the propensity for people to be violent and cruel. 

As I alluded to earlier, I read a few reviews and a little commentary on this book. Some have suggested that all the references to Dominican-American culture might lead those unfamiliar with that culture to be confused or at least to miss a lot in this book. I did not find this to be the case. The parts of this novel that take place in Patterson, New Jersey actually reminded me a lot of Philip Roth’s accounts of growing up in Jewish communities of New Jersey decades earlier. However, I think that those who are unfamiliar with science fiction/fantasy/comic book culture will miss a lot in this book. As per above, these references are all over the novel. In addition to the Dune connections, the dark forces and light forces in this book are connected in an important way to both The Lord of The Rings as well as to The Watchman. Growing up around the same time as Oscar and being a fan of science fiction and having ties to its “community” helped me to understand and relate to a lot of what is going on here. 

The government of the Dominican Republic is shown to be brutal and it perpetuates a great deal of cruelty and violence aimed at the de Leóns and others. Some readers might find these parts of the book disturbing. 

I immensely enjoyed this book. With that, I think that someone unfamiliar or uninterested in science fiction/fantasy culture might miss out on a lot and become bored. Thus, the book may not be universally admired. There is also a fair amount of disturbing brutality in this novel. However, the plot is compelling, and the characters are interesting and complex. It also offers an interesting look at Dominican-American culture as well as Dominican culture and history. It is full of odd things that contain a lot of underlying meaning. The right reader will find this a very worthy book. Some may also love it. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas R. Hofstadter

I am A Strange Loop by Douglas R. Hofstadter was written in 2008 and is the author’s follow up to Gödel, Escher, Bach, also known as GEB. My commentary on that book is here.

In this book, Hofstadter observes that due to the attention that other aspects of GEB garnered, the main point, that of strange loops being the origin of the human concept of self, got lost. He wrote this book to specifically hone onto those ideas. The author writes,

“And yet, despite the book’s popularity, it always troubled me that the fundamental message of GEB (as I always call it, and as it is generally called) seemed to go largely unnoticed. People liked the book for all sorts of reasons, but seldom if ever for its most central raison d’être! Years went by, and I came out with other books that alluded to and added to that core message, but still there didn’t seem to be much understanding out there of what I had really been trying to say in GEB.”

This book is much more comprehensible than Gödel, Escher, Bach. It is still technical in parts, but the author delves less deeply into hard to understand intricacies. He also hits upon fewer issues and goes off on fewer tangents, which allows him to stay on point. This work is a much more conventional book. It is less whimsical as it lacks the parable-like introduction to chapters that GEB offered. It is also less adventurous. 

What exactly is a strange loop? Roughly, it is a situation in which a loop is created, and the loop seems to jump between different levels. However, as a loop must do, it ends back in the same place that it started. The author goes on to explore strange loops that occur naturally, in mathematics, in art and in technology. The most easily visualized example of a strange loop is M. C. Escher’s Waterfall, which can be found here.

Hofstadter delves into how he believes that strange loops relate to human consciousness. He argues that animals, including humans, are equipped with both senses and brains that evolved to observe and analyze the world around us. When we turn these senses and cognitive mechanisms back upon ourselves to look and analyze ourselves, a strange loop is created. Hofstadter contends that this is the origin of our sense of self and our sense of “I.” He writes,

“I begin with the simple fact that living beings, having been shaped by evolution, have survival as their most fundamental, automatic, and built-in goal. To enhance the chances of its survival, any living being must be able to react flexibly to events that take place in its environment. This means it must develop the ability to sense and to categorize, however rudimentarily, the goings-on in its immediate environment (most earthbound beings can pretty safely ignore comets crashing on Jupiter). Once the ability to sense external goings-on has developed, however, there ensues a curious side effect that will have vital and radical consequences. This is the fact that the living being’s ability to sense certain aspects of its environment flips around and endows the being with the ability to sense certain aspects of itself. “

The book goes on to explore many of the debates and issues that scientists and philosophers who are exploring consciousness grapple with. As Hofstadter believes that the human mind is entirely the product of biological and physical processes, he argues against the opposite view, which is known as “Dualism.” 

This work is very personal. The author describes how after the death of his wife, he continued to develop ideas about how memories of other people, particularly of loved ones, are indeed aspects of those other people residing in the minds of others. These sections of the book are very emotional.

This book tries to make some of the same points as GEB. However, Hofstadter uses new examples and explores similar concepts in new ways. He also reaches a lot of new conclusions. Though less inventive, this book is a lot more coherent and understandable than GEB was. It can be read on its own as it provides a good overview of strange loops as well as Hofstadter’s views on the human mind. In fact, a reader may want to give this one a try first. As I wrote in my commentary on GEB, I actually put that work down in the middle and read this one. I found this unusual reading pattern to be helpful as this book helped me better understand what the author was trying to get in GEB.

My take on Hofstadter’s ideas here is similar to my take on GEB. That is, strange loops do occur both in the natural and human made world. They are interesting phenomena worth studying and thinking about. They do come into play within the human mind. I am not certain, however, that they play the primary role in the human sense of self that Hofstadter contends. 

This book is a neat and somewhat detailed look into strange loops. It covers a wide variety of subjects. It is coherent and interesting. It can be read as a follow up to Gödel, Escher, Bach or as a standalone. I recommend it to anyone curious about big, scientific and universal concepts and of human consciousness.