GENDER AND GENRE FICTION IN THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO.
The notable presence genre fiction references in Oscar Wao has inspired a number of interpretations. Many critics have focused on the way in which the narrator, Yunior, incorporates elements of science fiction and fantasy literature into his retelling of the life of Oscar and the saga of the De Leon and Cabral families. A number of these interpretations approach the topic of genre fiction in terms of culture and ethnicity. T.S. Miller argues that genre fiction problematizes the boundaries between literature and lived experience while serving as a metaphor for the act of narration. He concludes that Yunior regards science fiction as a legitimate discourse in both literary and cultural terms which acts as a lens through which he is better able to interpret and understand his experiences in the Dominican diaspora. Daniel Bautista suggests that the role of geme fiction functions as a rewriting of magical realism that he calls comic book realism. Unlike magical realism, comic book realism maintains a skeptical perspective when confronted with fantastic phenomena, functioning as a parody that emphasizes the cultural mediation that characterizes the experiences of the Dominican-American protagonists. Jose David Saldivar, on the other hand, relates genre fiction with Americanity, a notion he borrows from Anibal Quijano and Immanuel Wallerstein who posit that colonial power structures continue to influence ethnic and cultural identities in the Americas in the post-colonial era (Quijano and Wallerstein). Saldivar writes that according to this paradigm, the fuku americanus, a kind of ancestral curse that Yunior claims all Dominicans share, is a transcultural reconfiguration of those power structures that combines the folklore of the Antilles with geme fiction from the U.S.
Yet the tensions between Yunior's frequently expressed disdain for genre fiction as a character in the novel and his use of genre fiction tropes as narrator point to a psychic rift in his Dominican-American identity. Despite his extensive reliance on geme fiction to narrate the life of Oscar, Yunior expresses shame when he explicitly acknowledges the nerdier aspects of his own personality. This suggests that something about genre fiction is taboo, a fact made all the more apparent by Yunior's frequent criticisms of Oscar's unabashed indulgence in science fiction and fantasy. Elena Machado Saez's gender-based approach to the theme of geme fiction in the novel opens up promising possibilities for understanding these seemingly contradictory aspects of Yunior's personality. Machado Saez interprets the novel's use of geme fiction from the perspective of Oscar's queerness as a diasporic subject, writing that "Diaz uses the novelistic genre to embody the structure and linguistic diversity of the Dominican-American diaspora rather than the nation. Employing the appealing guise of polyvocality, Oscar Wao charms and entices the reader [...] into becoming complicit with the heteronormative rationale used to police male diasporic identity" (523). Moreover, behind the beguiling camouflage of science fiction and fantasy references, the narrative voice obeys the logic of national consolidation by demarcating the boundaries of the diasporic subject through promiscuous masculine heterosexuality (523). Accordingly, Yunior affirms his masculine heteronormative identity through sexual conquest and recurrent infidelity in romantic relationships. Given this standard of self-definition, the Dominican diaspora cannot assimilate Oscar's difference and Yunior must silence Oscar's "points of queer Otherness--his virginity and sentimentality" (524). In this reading, Yunior perpetuates the pattern of heteronormative violence that Rafael Leonidas Trujillo employed to impose his vision of the nation on the people of the Dominican Republic during his dictatorship, which lasted from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Yunior's references to genre fiction contribute to the charming polyvocality that beguiles the reader into overlooking his own repressive narrative strategies. Machado Saez concludes that by silencing Oscar, Yunior also attempts to silence his own difference as a diasporic subject.
While Machado Saez's insight that Oscar's queerness represents a threat that Yunior must silence in his role as dictatorial narrator is a productive way to interpret the relationship between the two characters, her assertion that Yunior's use of genre fiction is part of a sinister strategy to beguile the reader is problematic in light of Miller's conclusions that sci-fi and fantasy references seem fundamental to Yunior's mode of perceiving life in the Dominican diaspora. Rather than representing a repressive narrative strategy, then, Yunior's references to science fiction and fantasy can instead be read as an expression of his own irrepressible queerness, that is, those aspects of his personality that do not conform to the model of Dominican-American masculinity presented in the novel.
I attribute the transgressive nature of genre fiction in this context to its tendency to engage in discourses of difference that challenge, or queer, gender norms by revealing their contingent, constructed nature. In what follows, I elaborate a reading of the novel informed by queer interpretations of science fiction and fantasy. That is not to say that these genres represent a monolithic category in which each book, comic, or film questions heteronormativity. Rather, I intend to show that many of the novel's sci-fi and fantasy intertexts destabilize the masculine codes that define Yunior's Dominican-American male identity. Ultimately, the tensions between Yunior's creative use of the generic tropes of science fiction and fantasy as narrator and his tendency as a character to belittle Oscar's interest in these genres remain unresolved. His desire and denial exist in a continuous state of antagonistic flux, variously manifesting themselves or receding into the background depending on the narrative factors at play at specific moments in the plot.
In their anthology of essays about science fiction and queer theory, Wendy Gay Pearson, Veronica Hollinger, and Joan Gordon write that one of the advantages of queer theory is that it enables critics to identify the anxieties and questions raised by representations of sexuality in science fiction (2). They observe that
[a] significant emphasis within queer theory involves exposing the ways in which ideals of the normal, particularly as expressed through heteronormativity, constrain people's lives--and not just their sexual lives--in remarkable ways; in concert with the critique of heteronormativity, queer theory returns to Foucault to examine the ways in which heteronormativity is enforced through panoptical enticements to self-discipline and the reshaping of the individual to fit statistical and discursive nonns. (5)
By applying this interpretive paradigm to science fiction, they argue that works of this genre which appear to reaffirm patriarchal societal structures often contain discourses that undermine the foundations of heteronormativity. Recent scholarship on fantasy literature, too, such as Jes Battis' article "Gazing Upon Sauron: Hobbits, Elves, and the Queering of the Postcolonial Optic," shows that queer theory offers an equally productive way of understanding Yunior's reliance on fantasy intertexts such as J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series (1954-55). (2) These queer approaches to reading science fiction and fantasy make it possible to conceive of the presence of genre fiction in Yunior's narrative as a subversive breech in the disciplinary structures that govern his Dominican-American male identity. Although the Trujillato's heteronormative dictatorial panopticon continues to operate within Yunior's psyche, it has its limits, as demonstrated by his irrepressible interest in genre fiction. The two forces constantly vie for expression, yet neither ever achieves supremacy over the other.
From the very beginning of the novel, Yunior characterizes Oscar according to his developing queerness: "Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everybody's always going on about... not a playboy with a million hots on his jock. And except for one period early in his life, dude never had much luck with the females (how very un-Dominican of him)" (11 emphasis in original). Oscar's failure to exhibit sexual promiscuity later in life, then, would become a mark of his queerness and inability to conform to the norms of Dominican masculinity as understood by Yunior. Additionally, his obsessive interest in the minutiae of genre fiction becomes a metaphor for this difference. Yunior observes that Oscar "[cjould write in Elvish, could speak Chakobsa, could differentiate between a Slan, a Dorsai, and a Lensman in acute detail, knew more about the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee, and was a role-playing game fanatic" (21). (3) According to Yunior, then, Oscar's single most distinctive personality trait is his enthusiasm for and extensive knowledge of works of science fiction and fantasy. He is, in other words, a nerd, a word Yunior frequently uses to describe him.
Despite characterizing Oscar in these terms, Yunior admits that he, too, shares these same interests: "Perhaps if like me he'd been able to hide his otakuness maybe shit would have been easier for him, but he couldn't. Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn't have passed for normal if he'd wanted to" (21). In revealing his own hidden otakuness (a term derived from a Japanese slang word, otaku, (4) used to describe people who exhibit an intense interest in Manga comics and related popular art forms), Yunior also expresses the need to hide his interest in genre fiction in order not to appear nerdy, thus providing a clear demonstration of a panoptical enticement to self-discipline. The pressure Yunior feels to conform to what he perceives as normal shows that genre fiction violates some norm and must consequently be denied outwardly despite his inability to reject it entirely. As a character in the narrative, he therefore tends to behave according to heteronormative principles that hinder him from acting on this interest, whereas when he is narrating he frequently relies upon the tropes of genre fiction to achieve various effects.
In order to better understand the dynamics governing Yunior's behavior it is useful to consider the Dominican context in which they originated for, though fictional, the lives of Diaz's characters are shaped largely by the historical realities of the Dominican Republic. Christian Krohn-Hansen's essay "Masculinity and the Political among Dominicans: 'The Dominican Tiger'" sheds light on the cultural codes that mark genre fiction as off-limits to Yunior and reprehensible in Oscar. Krohn-Hansen describes the phenomenon of the so-called tiguere, a model of Dominican masculinity that constitutes a dominant discourse governing power relations on both the political and interpersonal level. He writes that in Dominican popular culture, the tiguere is a "survivor in his environment" (108), a particular type of man who "has to be situated as part of a protracted national history of political turbulence and repression" (109). In other words, the tiguere is a product of the brutal Trujillo dictatorship. According to Krohn-Hansen, "[ordinary] men in the capital, oppressed by the Trujillo state, first shaped the male type who became labelled the tiguere; later the use of the image spread to the rest of the country" (108). Furthermore, the tiguere continues to exist in contemporary Dominican society as a result of the fact that "masculinity is a dominant political discourse across the country, and is produced, reproduced, and modified by ordinary people in everyday life" (110). It is thus a self-sustaining phenomenon, a legacy of the cruelty and violence of the Trujillato that continues to shape the identities of the novel's characters. As Yunior explains in a footnote for those who missed their "mandatory two seconds of Dominican history" (2): "Trujillo, one of the twentieth century's most infamous dictators, ruled the Dominican Republic... with an implacable ruthless brutality [.... He] came to control nearly every aspect of the DR's political, cultural, social, and economic life through a potent (and familiar) mixture of violence, intimidation, massacre, rape, co-optation, and terror" (2). Given the incorporation of historical state violence into the discourse of the novel, it is not far-fetched to apply aspects of Krohn-Hansen's model of the tiguere to its male characters. The tiguere, he writes, is defined by five sets of ideas: "notions (1) of valentia, or courage; (2) of men's visibility in public spaces; (3) of the man as seducer and father; (4) of the power tied to a man's verbal skills; and (5) of a man's seriousness and sincerity" (112). The tiguere is, ultimately, "a sort of 'meta-image' or an image of a kind of masculine 'daily hero': an image of a man who is able to resolve, in an acceptable way, the dilemmas which have to be faced as a consequence of a tough environment and the ideals of masculinity" (121). These, then, are the discursive norms which contribute to Yunior's public heteronormative Dominican male identity. Understood in terms of the tiguere meta-image, Yunior's idea of what constitutes "normal" precludes openly displaying an interest in something as nerdy as genre fiction, a fact made evident by his unflattering descriptions of Oscar. He observes that
Oscar was an introvert who trembled with fear during gym class and watched nerd British shows like Doctor Who and Blake's 7, and could tell you the difference between a Veritech fighter and a Zentradi walker, and he used a lot of huge-sounding nerd words like indefatigable and ubiquitous when talking to niggers who would barely graduate from high school. One of those nerds who was always hiding out in the library, who adored Tolkien and later the Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman novels (his favorite character was of course Raistlin). (5) (22-23)
This characterization shows that in Yunior's eyes Oscar fails to meet the criteria of the tiguere identity. Oscar's performance in gym class shows a clear lack of valentia and his inability to communicate effectively with his classmates despite his large vocabulary--or perhaps because of it--betrays an inability to modulate his verbal skills in accordance with the norms of public communicative contexts. Furthermore, his habit of hiding out in the library certainly lowers his public visibility. Though sincere, Oscar could hardly be taken seriously by a tiguere given his other behaviors. He is, in short, a nerd, a word Yunior repeatedly uses to describe him.
Given the frequent use of words like nerd, nerdy, and nerdiness to describe Oscar, it is somewhat surprising that little effort has been made to parse the word's discursive function within the narrative. An interpretation of the novel therefore seems incomplete without examining what exactly the word nerd means. In his book Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them (2007), child psychologist David Anderegg writes that nerd is a "complex social category" (18) and that one way to understand nerds is in terms of what they are not. He explains that "there is a complementary stereotype that helps us to define what nerds and geeks are, because it sums up what they lack: Nerds and geeks are, by definition, not jocks. Jocks are self-conscious, socially skilled, attractive, popular, and of course, athletic, and nerds and geeks are none of these things" (27). He also explains that nerds have a poor reputation as far as romantic relationships are concerned, writing that "one thing we know for sure is that nerds have a lot of trouble getting laid" (113). Additionally, "[it is] precisely the lack of self-consciousness that sets nerdy kids apart from non-nerdy kids" (179). The difference Yunior perceives in Oscar, the diasporic nerd, is thus a lack or absence of those qualities that conform with the discursive norms of masculinity embodied by the Dominican tigitere.
Another way in which Oscar confonns to Anderegg's nerd stereotype is his interest in role-playing games which constitute compensatory fantasies. Reflecting on Oscar's adolescence, Yunior observes: "Everybody else going through the terror and joy of their first crushes, their first dates, their first kisses while Oscar sat in the back of the class, behind his DM's screen, and watched his adolescence stream by" (23). Unable to relate to his peers, Oscar retreats into his role of Dungeon Master in the fantasy role-playing game of Dungeons and Dragons. (6) Anderegg describes such behavior as schizoid, a state in which a person "has withdrawn into a world of fantasy over which the subject has complete control. It is a state of disengagement from the real world and a state of almost complete engagement with a self-created world where the subject is, in effect, a god" (207). (7) Role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons offer Oscar just such a compensatory fantasy. Though he cannot control the real world, he can immerse himself in a make-believe narrative world wherein he has complete control. He retreats there when he feels incapable of integrating into social life, of becoming, like the tiguere, "a survivor in his environment" (Krohn-Hansen 108).
That is why, according to Yunior, Oscar finds the game of Magic so disappointing: "the new generation of nerds weren't buying role playing games anymore. They were obsessed with Magic cards! No one had seen it coming. No more characters or campaigns, just endless battles between decks. All the narrative flensed from the game, all the performance, just straight unadorned mechanics" (269-70). Oscar's reaction to the decline of pen-and-paper narrative role-playing games offers some insight into his other behaviors such as hiding in the library and reading fantasy novels in high school or his lifelong habit of writing science fiction stories. As opposed to the tiguere, he is incapable of becoming the daily hero, instead choosing to imagine himself as a fantasy hero in his books and games. (8)
Anderegg's description of nerds more of less sums up Yunior's characterization of Oscar, particularly a lack of self-awareness regarding his interest in science fiction and fantasy, that is, his failure to hide his otakuness from the public. The difference between Yunior and Oscar can thus be understood in terms of the opposition between the Dominican tiguere who can survive in a tough environment and the U.S. nerd who, unable to thrive among his peers, retreats into the compensatory fantasies afforded by genre fiction. The nerdiness of genre fiction and all its connotations of social and romantic ineptitude in U.S. culture therefore come to represent the primary source of queer tension between Yunior and Oscar as Dominican diasporic subjects who cannot escape the repressive, hypermasculine standards of male behavior born of the Trujillato.
A number of episodes from the novel demonstrate how these cultural codes function in practice. When Yunior finds a sign that Oscar has hung on the door of the dorm room they share, he realizes that it is written in Elvish, a fictional language spoken by the elves of Middle Earth in J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy epic, The Lord of the Rings. Such knowledge is very nerdy indeed, and in a revealing extradiegetic aside to the reader Yunior pleads, "Please don't ask me how I knew this. Please" (172). His reluctance to admit that he understands the language of the elves is explained by his friend Melvin's riposte to Oscar's insistence that it is not Elvish but Sindarin, a related dialect: "Actually, Melvin said, it's gay-hay-hay" (172 emphasis in original). In this example, heteronormativity serves as the basis for constraining Oscar's difference, hence Melvin's homophobic comment. Oscar's enthusiasm for genre fiction is nerdy and all that word connotes, thereby queering him in the eyes of Yunior and Melvin who pressure him to conform to their discursive norm of Dominican masculinity. Yunior understands these cultural codes all too well, for he is ashamed to admit to the reader that he also knows Elvish.
The actions taken by Melvin and Yunior to police Oscar's queer transgressions through homophobic teasing reveal the compulsive need to impose heteronormativity that underlies the liguere identity. According to Judith Butler in her article "Imitation and Gender Insubordination," this kind of heteronormative identity "sets itself up as the original, the true, the authentic" (722). These tacit rules require that Melvin and Yunior discipline Oscar through teasing because his interest in geme fiction is a deviation from the Dominican masculine model that is perceived to be inherent in his biological sex. Butler reasons that the supposed authenticity of heteronormativity, as any other gender identity, is a cultural construction based on the principles of performativity rather than any biological determinism. Consequently, "acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means" (Gender Trouble 136, emphasis in original). The fact that gender is performed suggests that "it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality" (136). The tigaere identity can therefore be understood as a set of performative behaviors that create "the illusion of an interior and organizing gender core, an illusion discursively maintained for the purposes of the regulation of sexuality within the obligatory frame of reproductive heterosexuality" (136). Accordingly, Yunior's own interest in genre fiction and its connotations of nerdiness conflict with his public performance of Dominican masculinity, thereby compelling him to silence the reason why it is that, like Oscar, he knows Elvish. As if to dispel any lingering hint of nerdiness, he concludes the episode by explaining away his reluctance to defend Oscar in these situations by reiterating the performative behaviors that constitute his tiguere gender identity: "Despite my promises to [Oscar's sister] Lola to watch out, those first couple weeks I didn't have much to do with him. I mean, what can I say? I was busy. What state school player isn't? I had my job and the gym and my boys and my novia and of course I had my slutties" (172). Yunior's polysyndetic insistence on his athleticism, social skills, and sexual promiscuity suggests that he is sensitive about being perceived as anything less than a tiguere. It is no coincidence that he makes these comments shortly after admitting to knowing Elvish.
Another possible explanation for Yunior's antipathy towards Oscar's interest in science fiction and fantasy could be these genres' tendency to undermine the foundations of heteronormativity identified by Pearson, Hollinger, and Gordon. By raising questions and anxieties about sexuality, the genres have the potential to destabilize Yunior's masculinity by revealing it to be a mere performance devoid of essence. This in turn would lay bare the illusionary gender core that forms the basis of the patriarchal disciplinary structures of the Trujillato, the legacy of which continues to haunt the novel's Dominican diaspora as the fuku americanus. Thus, although he has lived in the United States most of his life, Yunior has nevertheless been defined to a large extent by the violence of the dictatorship and must therefore resist the destabilizing influence of any discourse which admits difference, such as genre fiction. Understood in conjunction with the dynamics of nerd identity, the queering potential of science fiction and fantasy provide a paradigm within which to understand Yunior's aversion to it as a character and, ultimately, its irresistible attraction to Yunior as narrator.
Specific manifestations of genre fiction throughout the novel demonstrate how its queering potential influences Yunior's interactions with and perceptions of Oscar. This is especially true given that genre fiction is often not only perceived as un-masculine but as amenable to feminine points of view. In his own gender-based analysis of sci-fi, Adam Roberts suggests that this aspect of the genre is the reason why the majority of sci-fi fans in the United States are women (93). Roberts asserts that the science fiction of the 60s and 70s such as the television series Star Trek attracted women because of its emphasis on the affective and personal aspects of its plot lines in which the role of human relations formed the axis of the narrative. In both books and television shows, this style of science fiction explored themes that appealed to feminine perspectives of the traditional patriarchal world (95). Roberts' claims regarding Star Trek would thus appear to support those of Pearson, Hollinger, and Gordon regarding science fiction in general. That is, by raising questions and anxieties about sexuality, Star Trek challenged aspects of the heteronormative patriarchal US society of the 60s. Echoes of this phenomenon can be found in Oscar Wao, as for example when, as a child, Oscar shares moments of intimacy with his girlfriend Olga: "Oscar liked how quiet she was, how she let him throw her to the ground and wrestle with her, the interest she showed in his Star Trek dolls" (13). This scene relates science fiction and, in particular, Star Trek, to intimacy and femininity, a pattern that will recur time and again throughout Oscar's life in his relationships with women, standing in stark contrast to Yunior's description of the young Oscar as "our little Porfirio Rubirosa" (12) on the preceding page. Rubirosa, or Rubi, explains Yunior in a footnote, was Trujillo's one-time son-in-law and "the quintessential jet-setting, car-racing polo-obsessed playboy [...] the original Dominican Player, fucked all sorts of women" (12). Though his status as a member of the elite excludes him from being counted among the ranks of oppressed males described by Krohn-Hansen, Rubirosa nevertheless embodied the tiguere ideal as a very visible, socially skilled, smooth-talking seducer. This detail shows that even from an early age the young boys of the Dominican diaspora portrayed in the novel are encouraged to associate themselves with the heteronormative identities of the tigueres into whom they should grow. As the novel progresses, however, Oscar instead evolves into a nerd who fears that he will die a virgin.
These tensions poignantly manifest themselves when, as a junior in college, Oscar dresses as Doctor Who for Halloween. Doctor Who, a BBC science fiction television series which also began production in the 60s, is much like Star Trek in that its storylines place an emphasis on the role of human relations and questions of difference. The main character, the Doctor, is himself an alien who is often out of place in human company. What is more, his bearing is decidedly un-masculine and his attire eccentric. A comparison of photos of Tom Baker, one of the actors who played the role of the Doctor, with photos of Oscar Wilde shows that the two share a striking resemblance in the way that they dress, a similarity that Yunior notes and uses to mock Oscar. Reflecting on his years playing the Doctor (1974-1981), Baker recalls: "When I took over the role of the Doctor my brief was to suggest that he was not human and that he should accordingly have mannerisms that were somehow alien to those around him. For my part I came to believe that the Doctor should have an air of naive innocence about him [...] he had to seem vulnerable and therefore more interesting to an audience" (qtd. in Haining 132). In this regard, he is a compelling choice for Oscar's Halloween costume. Oscar, too, despite his best efforts to fit in, is alien to those around him and, like the Doctor, exudes an air of innocence and vulnerability. What is more, the Doctor frequently travels through space and time with attractive female companions. Yet for decades, he never showed so much as an inkling of a sexual interest in any of them. Though this could be attributed to the fact that the series was originally conceived of as a children's show, the Doctor was essentially asexual and, in that regard, antithetical to the Dominican liguere model of masculinity.
It should be recalled that Yunior notes that Oscar was interested in "nerd British shows like Doctor Who and Blake's 7" (22). As has been suggested, sexual ineptitude is one of the characteristics of the nerd stereotype. One can therefore infer that for Oscar's Dominican peers an interest in nerd shows implies a corresponding sexual--or gender-based stigma. This is indeed the basis for the homophobic bullying to which Oscar is subjected in this scene. Alien, asexual, and eccentric, the Doctor's difference combined with Oscar's nerdiness represents a deviation from Yunior's ideal of Dominican masculinity. When he sees Oscar's costume, he exclaims "I couldn't believe how much he looked like that fat homo Oscar Wilde, and I told him so. You look just like him, which was bad news for Oscar, because Melvin said, Oscar Wao, quien es Oscar Wao, and that was it, all of us started calling him that: Hey, Wao, what you doing?" (180). The episode follows the same pattern established by the confrontation over Elvish, only this time it is Oscar's performance of an identity perceived as queer that precipitates Yunior's and Melvin's bullying. Yunior is astounded by Oscar's passivity and eventual acceptance of his new nickname: "And the tragedy? After a couple of weeks dude started answering to it" (180 emphasis in original). Oscar's response to the name-calling is decidedly un-tigitere. The tiguere, after all, is "that image of a man who is able to resolve, in an acceptable way, the dilemmas which have to be faced as a consequence of a tough environment" (Krohn-Hansen 121). Yet Oscar's passivity eventually stirs feelings of remorse in Yunior: "Fool never got mad when we gave him shit. Just sat there with a confused grin on his face. Made a brother feel bad" (181). These observations reveal that on a certain level Yunior feels conflicted about his tiguere identity. The performance of that identity seems to be in conflict with the more empathetic, that is, less masculine, aspects of his personality. The enticement to self-discipline weakens somewhat when he and Oscar are alone: "A couple of times after the others left, I'd say, You know we was just kidding right?" (181). It is in moments like these when Yunior the character seems more like Yunior the narrator who unashamedly intersperses his comments to the reader with science fiction and fantasy references.
Therein lie the primary tensions of Yunior's Dominican-American identity. He is compelled to perform his gender identity as a tiguere on the one hand but, on the other, feels drawn to the possibilities of change and growth afforded by the queering potential of genre fiction. The various ways that he employs or reacts to genre fiction highlight these conflicting aspects of his personality as it oscillates between heteronormative enticements to self-discipline and the opposing queering tendencies that threaten to destabilize his public persona.
In contrast to his behavior as a character in the novel, as narrator Yunior is far more sympathetic to Oscar's travails and, as regards genre fiction, shows himself to be the consummate nerd by employing references to science fiction and fantasy to engage the reader in discourses of difference. In pondering the possible origins of Oscar's outsized love of genre fiction, for example, Yunior writes, "It might have been a consequence of being Antillean (who more sci-fi than us?) or of living in the DR for the first couple of years of his life and then abruptly wrenchingly relocating to New Jersey--a single green card shifting not only worlds (from Third to First) but centuries (from almost no TV or electricity to plenty of both)" (22). In this passage, the science fiction tropes of travel through time and space enable Yunior to communicate to the reader the traumatic and alienating effects of difference that Oscar felt on coming to the U.S. as a young child. He uses a similar technique to convey the alienation that Oscar experienced during his adolescence: "You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest" (22). Here, Yunior's comparison of Oscar, "a bookish boy of color," to the X-Men, mutants often marginalized by society, emphasizes the profound role of race as a factor of Oscar's difference: though his physical appearance marks him as part of the Dominican diaspora, his nerdiness alienates him from that community by associating him with the dominant, white U.S. culture. (9) Characteristically, Oscar, too, tends to view questions of racial difference in terms of genre fiction. In college, he asks Yunior, "If we were ores, wouldn't we, at a racial level, imagine ourselves to look like elves?" (178, emphasis in original). (10) Oscar's musings on issues of race in The Lord of the Rings no doubt arose from his own difficulties in negotiating the U.S. and Dominican racial categories he encountered as a "bookish boy of color" during high school and college. Yunior writes that racial and cultural barriers dashed Oscar's hopes of finding acceptance at college, just as they had in high school: "The white kids looked at his black skin and his afro and treated him with inhuman cheeriness. The kids of color, upon hearing him speak and seeing him move his body, shook their heads. You're not Dominican" (49). The themes of racial difference inherent in works of fantasy literature like The Lord of the Rings provide Oscar with a means of understanding and coping with his experiences as a diasporic subject living in the U.S. Moreover, references to genre fiction enable Yunior to communicate Oscar's sense of alienation by comparing it to accessible aspects of popular culture like the X-Men comics and movies. Likewise, when Yunior contemplates Oscar sitting alone behind his DM screen at the back of the classroom in high school, he reflects that it "[sucks] to be left out of adolescence, sort of like getting locked in the closet on Venus when the sun appears for the first time in a hundred years" (23). This is a reference to a 1954 science fiction short story by Ray Bradbury titled "All Summer in a Day" in which a girl's classmates lock her in a closet right before the clouds of the Venusian skies clear to reveal the sun for a few moments, an occurrence which only happens once every seven years. The comparison enables Yunior to express the sense of loss and ephemerality that characterize Oscar's youth in terms that are not subject to the discursive norms of Yunior's tiguere identity. Programmed as it is to resist and police difference, this identity affords a limited behavioral capacity for expressing empathy. It would seem that it is only through the tropes of genre fiction that the narrative voice of Yunior is capable of accessing an emotional repertoire that lay outside of his tiguere self.
Yunior also employs this narrative technique when discussing Dominican history. In a passage describing the terror of the Trujillo dictatorship, he writes that "[in] some ways living in Santo Domingo during the Trujillato was a lot like being in that famous Twilight Zone episode that Oscar loved so much, the one where the monstrous white kid with the godlike powers rules over a town that is completely isolated from the rest of the world" (224). The episode, "It's a Good Life," which aired in 1963 and is based on Jerome Bixby's 1953 short story of the same name, follows the fate of the helpless townspeople of Peakesville, Ohio, who live in constant fear of the six-year old Anthony Freemont, a fickle demigod who uses his powers to wish those who displease him into the cornfield, a space of oblivion from which they never return. Yunior writes that "[you] might roll your eyes at the comparison, but, friends: it would be hard to exaggerate the power Trujillo exerted over the Dominican people and the shadow of fear he cast throughout the region" (224). As in the previous examples, Yunior inverts the queering effect of genre fiction to establish a thematic connection between his narrative and popular forms of entertainment. Moreover, the comparison of Trujillo to a "monstrous white kid" carries racial overtones that recall Yunior's description of the dictator at the beginning of the novel as a "portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulato who bleached his skin" (2, my emphasis). Indeed, Trujillo, whose grandmother was Haitian, was obsessed with race and attempted to whiten himself to win acceptance among the upper classes of Dominican society (Wucker 51). The dictator's efforts to appear white show the extent to which Dominicans had internalized the racial categories of hispanicismo, the official state nationalism that privileged European ancestry (i.e., whiteness) and Hispanic cultural norms (Mayes 1). Under Trujillo, this racist conceptualization of the Dominican nation became an anti-black ideology, hispanidad, that served to justify state-sponsored racial violence and subsequently permeated Dominican society and culture (Mayes 2). (11) In this regard, it is a short journey from the cornfields of Peakesville to the canefields of the Dominican Republic, a space in the novel that becomes emblematic of the nation's history of racial violence. (12) As a young woman, Oscar's dark-skinned mother Beli has an affair with a man who turns out to be the husband of Trujillo's sister. When the affair is discovered, regime henchmen take her to the canefields where "[t]hey beat her like she was a slave. Like she was a dog" (147, my emphasis). Over thirty years later, Oscar, too, is taken to the canefields and savagely beaten when a Dominican police captain discovers that Oscar has been making romantic overtures towards his girlfriend, Ybon. Yunior alludes to the historical, cyclical nature of the racial violence to which Oscar is subjected, writing, "Where did they take him? Where else. The canefields. How's that for eternal return?" (296). The canefield is also where Oscar is eventually killed after he refuses to stop seeing Ybon. Just as the residents of Peakesville live in constant fear that the monstrous white kid will send them to their deaths in the cornfield, African-origin Dominicans live a precarious existence in which their lives can be taken with impunity in the canefields. The effect of Yunior's comparison is to make the terror of living in the Trujillato and its legacy accessible to readers unfamiliar with Dominican history, yet the comparison retains a sense of the fantastic, drawn as it is from the Twilight Zone. The cumulative effect of these nerdy references is to queer Yunior the tiguere whose capacity for self-expression and emotional experience is otherwise constrained by a dictatorial heteronormativity that shuns difference.
Yet not all of the ways that Yunior employs genre fiction are entirely sympathetic to honoring Oscar's life with a truthful accounting of it. At the conclusion of the novel Yunior indulges in what Anderegg would term a "schizoid compensatory fantasy" (207) in order to escape a reality over which he has little control. Yunior's fantasy, which imagines the arrival of Oscar's adult niece, Isis, is perhaps the most complex manifestation of the conflict between his heteronormative Dominican male identity and his love of genre fiction. The book ends with Yunior more or less living the life Oscar would have had if he had not been killed: teaching English at a small college, a narrative trajectory that Diaz explores in greater detail in the 2012 short story "The Cheater's Guide to Love." In this story, Yunior struggles to come to terms with the consequences of his promiscuous tiguere behaviors as he narrates the aftermath of the break up with his fiance who leaves him when she discovers his rampant infidelity. Yet in Oscar Wao, Yunior reveals little of his life as a professor in the years following Oscar's death. Instead, he lives in a state of melancholy, haunted by the memory of Oscar and his brief wondrous life, as evidenced by the four refrigerators in his basement where he stores Oscar's "books, his games, his manuscript, his comic books, his papers--refrigerators the best proof against fire, against earthquake, against almost anything" (330). In his fantasy, he imagines the arrival of Isis who will be able to provide him with a cathartic release from the guilt and sorrow he feels for the death of Oscar. He will take her down to his basement where she will set to work sifting through Oscar's effects, trying to make sense of a mystery which Yunior is incapable of interpreting for himself. By imagining the possibility of one day understanding Oscar's life, he simultaneously imagines the possibility of understanding his own.
Though subtle, certain aspects of the fantasy suggest that the typological model Yunior employs is derived from the E.E. "Doc" Smith sci-fi saga, the six-part Lensman series, that begins with the 1948 novel Triplanetaiy. Oscar and Yunior admire Smith's series, and it exerts a powerful influence on their imaginations. According to Yunior, Oscar writes various chapters of "his never-to-be-completed opus, a four-book E.E. 'Doc' Smith-esque space opera called Starscourge" (333). Yunior's own imaginative appropriation of the series forms the basis of the imagined arrival of Isis, who bears thematic similarities to Clarissa MacDougal, the first female Lensman in the otherwise entirely male Galactic Patrol of Smith's novels. Read according to the interpretive paradigm laid out in Queer Universes, MacDougal's role in the saga undermines the series' heteronormative discourse by queering its imagined patriarchal societal structures. She therefore provides Yunior with the ideal typological model for imagining Isis.
Clarissa's special powers as a female Lensman offer an allegorical conceptual framework within which Yunior can imagine a way to resolve the tensions between his public performance of tiguere identity and his inner, private nerd. The Lensman series is premised on the creation of the Galactic Patrol, an organization founded by an extraterrestrial race, the Arisian Elders, who distribute mysterious lenses to guardians responsible for patrolling the galaxy and keeping the peace. An Arisian lens, a kind of amulet or talisman worn by the Lensmen, has mystical properties that permit its wearer to understand any language and communicate telepathically. The lenses can also decipher secret messages and perceive the thoughts of others. (13) In First Lensman (1950), the second novel of the series, the Elders warn, however, that "whoever wears the Lens of Arisia will carry a load that no weaker mind could bear. The load of authority; of responsibility; of knowledge that would wreck completely any mind of lesser strength" (Smith 32). Due to an incompatibility with the feminine gender, women cannot use the lenses which "are as masculine as whiskers" (Smith 42). Consequently, the Arisians undertake a millenary project to engender a superior species of woman that will be able to use a lens. Jill Samms, the daughter of the first Lensman, Virgil Samms, learns of the Lady Lensman directly from the Elders and reports, "Well, to get back to this Lady Lensman who is going to appear some day, I gather that she is going to be some kind of a freak. She'll have to be, practically, because of the sex-based fundamental nature of the Lens" (Smith 42). Gender, then, is central to the progression of the plot which, interpreted in queer terms, signals a shift in the work's heteronormative discourse. The Lady Lensman's freakishness consists not only in her superior mental powers but also in the fact that she will be able to accomplish things ordinary Lensmen cannot. The culmination of the eugenic project is Clarissa MacDougal, a nurse who appears in the third book of the series, Galactic Patrol (1950). The series thus imagines a plot which cannot advance without the intervention of an incorruptible, intellectually superior woman.
It is this aspect of the Lensman series that influences the denouement of Oscar Wao with the imagined arrival of Isis, Lola's daughter. Yunior is incapable of bearing the load of authority, responsibility, and knowledge that a direct engagement with Oscar's legacy represents since, in essence, this would entail confronting his own conflictive nature. Though he longs for relief from the oppressive gender identity he has inherited as a member of the Dominican diaspora, that same identity constrains him from confronting it directly since the prospect of its destabilization is too threatening to his sense of public self. He resolves, then, to await an external solution from a source free of the fuku arnericanus, a powerful yet non-threatening female presence that will relieve him of having to undergo the painful emotional process himself. In his fantasy, the solution takes the form of Isis, who represents the idealized recovery of both Lola and Oscar and the extirpation of Yunior's melancholic grief.
Yet Clarissa MacDougal is not the only model upon which Isis is based. Isis is also the name of the Egyptian goddess who restored her dead brother and husband, Osiris, to life after reassembling his dismembered body. According to Jan Assmann, the goddess Isis is therefore associated in Egyptian mythology with the resurrection of the dead: "Isis embodies the life-giving powers that stem from romantic attachment, and her care works like an animating sphere that can wake the dead with light and air. Thus, the preference for depicting Isis on the walls of coffins: her presence was supposed to transform the coffin into a sphere of life in which the deceased could see, breathe, and experience pleasure" (34-35). The name is therefore highly suggestive of Yunior's wish for a goddess figure to rescue his friend from death by breathing life into Oscar's collected writings stored in the refrigerator-coffins. Moreover, the imaginary character's associations with works of genre fiction further reinforce the idea that Yunior finds himself incapable or unwilling to resolve his internal conflicts himself and instead waits to be saved through the intervention of a non-threatening external alternative. The name Isis is first mentioned in the novel when Yunior describes the sudden pubescent transformation of Maritza, one of young Oscar's first girlfriends. Following a tragic break up with Maritza (she leaves him for another boy), Yunior declares, "faster than you can say Oh Mighty Isis, Maritza blew up into the flyest guapa in Paterson" (17). Thus, the imaginary arrival of Isis in the last chapter recalls Oscar's initial romantic failure and, in a sense, resolves the primordial trauma that scarred Oscar for life in the mind of Yunior. Furthermore, Oh Mighty Isis is a reference to the eponymous heroine of the fantasy television series The Secrets of Isis which appeared as part of CBS' Saturday morning lineup from 1975 to 1976. Like MacDougal, the heroine Isis queers heteronormative discourses in that, like Superman, she had "a Lois-lane sidekick, Rick Mason [...] that always pined for her alter ego and was in dire need of rescuing" (Muir 305). Just as Isis must rescue Mason in the television series, so, too, must Oscar's niece rescue Yunior from his oppressive gender identity, via the organization and interpretation of Oscar's papers.
Yunior's fantasy blends the Egyptian goddess with these female characters into an imaginary being capable of ending his internal strife. The imagined Isis wears a necklace that constitutes an allusion to both the Lensman series and the Mighty Isis whose powers are also derived from a talisman: "But on a string around her neck: three azabaches: the one that Oscar wore as a baby, the one that Lola wore as a baby, and the one that [Oscar's mother] Beli was given by [Oscar's grandmother] La Inca upon reaching Sanctuary. Powerful elder magic" (329). Certain clues in the text suggest that the necklace be interpreted as an Arisian lens. The first time that Yunior refers to the Lensmen he says that Oscar "wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens" (21 my emphasis). It is interesting that he uses the feminine possessive her because, with the exception of Clarissa MacDougal, the Lensmen are all men. Additionally, the statement "powerful elder magic" can be read as another reference to the Lensmen series because it is the Arisian Elders who invent the mystical lenses for the protection of the galaxy. What is more, just like Clarissa MacDougal, Isis represents the culmination of a genetic process that spans generations--the saga of the De Leon and Cabral families--and only she is able to complete the millenary mission of undoing the fuku americanus by revealing the hidden truth contained in Oscar's papers and other belongings. Contemplating this possibility, Yunior muses hopefully, "and maybe, just maybe, if she's as smart and as brave as I'm expecting she'll be, she'll take all that we've done and all that we've learned and add her own insights and she'll put an end to it" (331). Lastly, she is, in a way, a freak like that described in First Lensman. Yunior, imagining their initial encounter, notices "that she still wears her azabaches, that she has her mother's legs, her uncle's eyes" (330). She is therefore a composite of the De Leon children, both of whom Yunior has loved and lost. Incorruptible and of superior intelligence, she is free of the fuku americanus, the legacy of the Trujillato violence, and uniquely capable of bridging the gap between the dark past of the Dominican diaspora and its bright, guiltless future. The queering potential of genre fiction thus enables Yunior to imagine a way out of the otherwise inescapable heteronormative panopticon that has determined the course of his life. By means of genre fiction, Yunior can imagine a future in which his queemess finally finds a way to manifest itself.
Robert K. Fritz
Murray State University
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(1) I use the term "genre fiction" to refer collectively to science fiction and fantasy. As Joyce Saricks observes, the genres frequently overlap with one another because each "deals with otherness of time or place" (244). Nevertheless, she identifies key differences between them. She writes that "Science Fiction posits worlds and technologies which could exist. Science, rather than magic, drives these speculative tales" (225). Magic, on the other hand, is key to fantasy, which "exists in a world that most people believe never could be" (244). Yunior highlights the appeal of these genres to the diasporic imagination, writing that Oscar "was a hardcore sci-fi and fantasy man, believed that was the kind of story we were all living in. He'd ask: What more sci-fi than the Santo Domingo? What more fantasy than the Antilles?" (6).
(2) Battis writes that "the most radical enunciation of the feminine within The Lord of the Rings finds its embodiment through the male hobbits themselves, whose gender is queered not by transformative events, but within ambivalent moments," such as their separation from women (915). Likewise, ambivalent moments of homosocial affection for Oscar queer Yunior because they transgress his standards of masculinity.
(3) Elvish refers to the language of the elves in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novels. Chakobsa is a language in Frank Herbert's science fiction novel Dune (1965). The Slan and Dorsai are races depicted in the science fiction novels of A. E. van Vogt and Gordon R. Dickson, respectively. The Lensmen are galactic peace-keepers in E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series (1948-54). Oscar's detailed knowledge of these fictional languages and peoples is ironic given his difficulties negotiating the racial, cultural, and linguistic intricacies of the Dominican diaspora.
(4) Patrick W. Galbraith writes that in Japan in the 1980s, "otaku were described as social rejects, those who failed to conform, communicate with others, and connect consumption and play to productive roles at home, school, and work" (210). Given that Oscar's interest in genre fiction manifests during his adolescence in the 1980s, Yunior's characterization of him as otaku is particularly apt.
(5) The character Raistlin Majere appears in the Dragonlance fantasy novels Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman co-authored in the 1980s and 90s. Though physically weak, he is highly intelligent and studies magic to become a sorcerer. Rune Graulund compares Raistlin to a "scholarly nerd" whose relationship with his "jock" brother, Caramon, "is representative of the drama unfolding in Oscar's own life" (44).
(6) A Dungeon Master essentially narrates a game of Dungeons and Dragons. As narrator, Yunior sometimes employs Dungeon Master terminology such as "hit points," the metric used to determine the damage that players suffer in battle, as metaphorical tropes for describing events in the novel. He writes, for example, that Beli, Oscar's mother, incurred "[o]ne hundred and ten hit points minimum" (257) from burns suffered at the hands of her adoptive father. The use of this terminology queers Yunior by showing that his familiarity with nerdy role-playing games informs his perceptions of reality.
(7) Anderegg distinguishes such behavior from psychosis, stating that "it is perfectly possible to be in a schizoid state and not be psychotic: one can just be deeply preoccupied with the inner, self-created world and deeply uninterested in any other world, including the world we all live in" (207-08).
(8) Though Dungeons and Dragons is a game, it draws on many of the fantasy tropes found in The Lord of the Rings. As Helen Young writes, "The influence of Tolkien's writing, particularly The Lord of the Rings, on Fantasy role-playing games is [...] immense. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson's 1974 Dungeons & Dragons imitated Tolkien's work so closely that it infringed copyright and elements had to be changed for later editions under threat of legal action" (18). Dungeons and Dragons may thus be considered a kind of fantasy fiction that informs how Yunior perceives reality.
(9) Regarding this comparison, Ashley Kunsa writes, "An aptitude for reading which connects Oscar with whiteness, does not, however, help him to achieve the benefits of whiteness because he has such limited interaction (at this point in his life) with the dominant group. Thus, rather than signaling to whites that he is ready/able to accept their norms and characteristics, Oscar's avid reading signals to the children in his neighborhood that he does not fit in with them[...]. As a result, Diaz suggests that the best racial category to describe young Oscar is 'mutant'" (219).
(10) Oscar's question speaks to what Hellen Young calls the "habits of Whiteness" (16) that pervade The Lord of the Rings. Young writes that "the race-based ideologies behind the social systems which privileged [fantasy authors like Tolkien] as White men very strongly influenced the shape of the worlds they imagined, worlds which were decidedly eurocentric and reproduced White race-thinking that had justified both British imperialism and slavery in the US since at least the eighteenth century" (16). Thus, although works of fantasy fiction often explore questions of difference in productive ways, they also sometimes reproduce the racial discourses of the historical contexts in which they were written.
(11) According to April Mayes, the origins of hispanidad as an ideology were linked to the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic, which lasted from 1916 to 1924. She writes that "[f]or both Dominican nationalists and the U.S. military authorities, the return of Dominican sovereignty depended on the monopoly of political power held by white or light-skinned Dominican men [...]. Rather than regard the black male as representative of the body politic, [Dominican elites] opted for a discourse of 'civilized' patriarchal authority that laid the foundation for the acceptance of a virulently anti-black nationalist ideology, hispanidad" (115). The racial violence inflicted on the De Leon family in the Dominican Republic is thus transnational in origin and historically related to the racism they experience in the U.S.
(12) Jennifer Harford Vargas writes that in Oscar Wao the canefield "serves as a chronotope for the [De Leon] family's experience of repression and as the time-space for the reenactment of intersecting oppressions. The cane field is a primal site where violence is perpetrated against African-origin subjects: slaves, Haitian laborers, Dominican subjects (Beli), and transnational subjects (Oscar)" (15-16).
(13) Miller also notes similarities with the Lensman series, writing that "the powers of the Lens [...] parallel the narratorial abilities Yunior arrogates to himself far too closely to be coincidental" (101) in that he seemingly reads characters' thoughts as if he were a Lensman. Yunior is an untrustworthy narrator, however, because he does not present his own posture transparently.
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