September 16, 2016

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

What’s in a title? What does it mean to be a titular character? When is a title just subterfuge, a way of hiding the real message, the real narrative in any kind of story?

These are questions that I’ve pondered at least twice this past week, questions to which I do not have any answers.

The first time I reflected upon titles this week was after watching Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl. Ostensibly the story of the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery, at least as hinted at by the title, The Danish Girl is not the story of Lili, as it would like us to believe. It is, instead, the story of another Danish woman, Lili’s wife Gerda, and of how her life changed as her partner went through this journey.

Finishing The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao gave me another opportunity to think about titular characters; Junot Díaz’s novel may claim to be about Oscar, but it is more aptly the story of the lives of the people around him. Oscar (Wao) De Léon may be the thread that ties all of these personal histories together, but these are rich histories, a multitude of narratives of lives and loves, that could stand on their own. Mr. Díaz shows immense skill in weaving all these stories together, and uses Oscar to bring a deft cohesiveness to the book.

By the time I had finished The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I was yearning to learn more about Lola (Oscar’s fierce yet compassionate sister), about Beli (his headstrong and proud mother), about the Dominican Republic under Trujillo. I did not care to know more about Oscar, but that was unimportant; he may have been the titular character, but he certainly wasn’t the raison d’être for the novel.

A lot has been said about Mr. Díaz’s fascinating writing style, littering the prose with references to science fiction and fantasy, seamlessly drifting between English and Spanish slang—rightfully so, as the writing is not just unique, but beautiful. Not enough has been said about how Mr. Díaz wrote a novel where the title character was the least interesting character in the book, and still managed to make it one of the most engrossing stories I have ever read.

What is, then, in a title? We are all the titular characters in our own lives, but whether or not our we will be the most interesting, the most central characters will matter mostly on who tells the story when that time comes.

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