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Williams Reads

February 9, 2010

Wayne writes: During January term, Williams College conducts a program called ‘Williams Reads’. One book is selected and copies are made available so that the entire college community can read and discuss it. The aim of the program is not so much a shared experience with a work of literature as exposure to a work which encourages thinking about issues of diversity and discrimination. This year the title selected was The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, first published in 2007 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. As its blurb puts it, the title character ‘is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd, a New Jersey romantic who dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But Oscar may never get what he wants. Blame the fukú – a curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, following them on their epic journey from the Dominican Republic to the United States and back again.’

To Oscar, The Lord of the Rings is ‘one of his greatest loves and greatest comforts’. We’re not told exactly why, but it’s implied that it takes him into a world not his own, and his own world is one of suffering and disappointment. He wants ‘to be the Dominican Tolkien’, to write an epic fantasy like The Lord of the Rings. His friend Yunior, the narrator of the book, uses Tolkienian references: for example, he compares the curse believed to follow Oscar and his family to ‘Morgoth’s bane’, and supports this with a quote from The Silmarillion. This usage, however, is wrong: it’s supposed to mean that Morgoth was the bane of Arda, but ‘Morgoth’s bane’ = ‘the bane (or doom) of Morgoth’, just as the balrog of Moria was ‘Durin’s bane’. Later, Oscar’s mother is said ‘to diminish, like Galadriel after the temptation of the ring’, but in The Lord of the Rings Galadriel diminishes, or rather her power diminishes, not because she was tempted by Frodo offering her the Ring of Power, but because the Ring is ultimately destroyed and Galadriel’s elven-ring fails. I don’t know if these misstatements were accidental by Díaz, or intentional to show that the narrator doesn’t know Tolkien as well as his friend Oscar did.

Because Oscar Wao contains Tolkien references, I was asked to be on a panel discussion about the book with five members of the faculty. First I had to read it through to get the big picture, and then again for detail. My immediate response was that I’m clearly out of step with those who review contemporary fiction and are quoted profusely on the covers and first pages of the paperback of Díaz’s book. It certainly did not ‘burn its way into [my] heart and sizzle [my] senses’. Although I understood the historical and cultural issues involved in the story, I couldn’t generate much sympathy for characters whose sad lives have more to do with their own choices than with ethnic circumstances, or with fate. The best I could manage was a tangential kinship with Oscar, having read many of the same science fiction and fantasy novels and comic books and seen the same films and television shows.

Galactus from Fantastic Four 49That being so, and especially since I recognized the exact source of the opening epigraph of Oscar Wao – ‘Of what import are brief, nameless lives . . . to Galactus??’ – before I read the accompanying citation, I decided to concentrate, in my designated six or seven minutes on the panel, on the wealth of pop culture references in the book. Dejah Thoris, D&D, Ultraman, Apokolips and New Genesis, the Bene Gesserit, Cosmo DNA, the works of E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith – Díaz uses these, among many others, to define Oscar, Yunior, and friends, and sometimes to describe a place or situation. (The Dominican Republic under the dictator Trujillo is compared more than once to Tolkien’s Mordor. Trujillo is the Sauron of the DR, its brutal counterpart to Marvel Comics’ Galactus, who devours worlds with no concern for their inhabitants.)

I had time only to mention a few of these references, ending with two in particular: the Watcher (Uatu), also from Marvel Comics, and Alan Moore’s brilliant comic book series Watchmen. The Watcher is a being from another galaxy devoted to observing Earth and its solar system. Oscar is said in Díaz’s book to be a watcher, living on the fringe of society, and Yunior calls himself a ‘Watcher’, having watched over both Oscar and his sister Lola. Watchmen also has to do with watching over, protecting, and is said to have been one of the ‘top three [books]’ that Oscar loved.

For props, I brought original copies of Fantastic Four (first series) no. 48, with the Watcher prominent on the cover, and Watchmen no. 12, which Díaz quotes near the end of his story. I suspect that these were too geeky for some who attended the discussion, especially in contrast to the more scholarly talk from the faculty, about ethnic identity, Díaz’s use of vulgarities in three languages, and the concept of fúku. The panel was video-recorded, so maybe it will show up on the Web sometime.

Image: Galactus, from Fantastic Four, original series no. 49, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Galactus isn’t really evil, it’s just his nature to eat planets.

  1. Harry Spooner permalink
    February 12, 2010 6:46 am

    Please excuse this method of contact.
    My partner’s father was born in Filey, and I wonder, after reading Roverandom, if Tolkien knew of the Filey Dragon? The Filey dragon legend concerns a local tailor, Billy Biter. Mr Biter was walking along the cliffs one mediaeval, misty morning, when he tumbled into a ravine that turned out to be the lair of a dragon. The dragon was about to devour him when Billy offered a local sweet delicacy, a parkin, which the dragon enjoyed so much, that he let Billy go. Billy told his wife who then set about baking the biggest and sickliest parkin in the whole of Yorkshire, which when offered to the dragon, caused its jaws to become stuck tight. The dragon then flew into the sea but could not overcome the icy waves. Its bones turned to stone and became Filey Brigg. There are several legends linking Filey Brigg with a dragon.
    Coincidently, reported in the Daily Telegraph for the 1/3/1934, a sea serpent was witnessed by Mr Wilkinson Herbert, a local Coast guard who had taken a wrong turn along the sands at Filey Brigg in Yorkshire during the course of his duty.

  2. David Doughan permalink
    February 13, 2010 1:20 pm

    Ah, parkin! For those unfortunate folk who are not Yorkshire-bred, I should explain that parkin is a sort of cake made largely of oatmeal, flour, treacle (molasses) and ginger. It is traditionally served around the bonfire on 5 November, but it’s readily eaten at other times as well. I don’t think that sickly is the best term for it (I would have to eat an awful lot to sicken of it) – sticky is a much better description!

    There are plenty of North Country stories about various “worms”, the most famous being the Lambton Worm, but the Filey dragon is a new one on me – thank you for that. Whether or not Tolkien knew the story, it’s highly appropriate, given such Bimble Bay poems as “The Dragon’s Visit”.

  3. February 13, 2010 3:27 pm

    Sorry, we don’t know if Tolkien knew of the Filey Dragon; there’s no mention of it in the papers and writings we’ve seen. It’s an interesting story, though!

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