I really like what Diaz has done with this novel. The way it spans time and space without sacrificing perspective—in the sense that frequently when the narrator takes us to a different moment in time in the narrative, he places us directly in it more so than keeping us in the frame of a “present” looking back on a “past”—is skillfully done, and I enjoyed the sort of limbo feel it lent to the novel. I did not, however, enjoy the footnotes quite so much. While interesting and entertaining enough in their own right, I found them often too long—and therefore too distracting from the main body of the narrative—to function smoothly with the collective whole. I liked the idea of using footnotes in general, as additions and side notes to the text, and the feel they gave of a person looking back on his own narration and amending and reflecting upon it. It seems to follow the Socratic idea that “the unexamined life is not worth living” in the narrator’s returning to the work after first writing it, and also in that the work itself deals with revisiting past writings and past lives.
What I found, however, was that while the narrative purported to be focused mainly on Oscar—even the title of the novel makes him the star—I could not identify with him in many ways. I could understand him, yes—sure, it sucks to be a fat geek who can’t get any; yeah, I can see where this story is going—but I could not really identify with him. I could identify to some extent with Yunior, because he seemed the most real of all the characters. I suppose you could argue that this “realness” is in some ways inherent in his being the narrator. However, I most identified with Lola. I’m not sure if this is because I found her story the most convincing, or because I could relate to her relationships with the people around her more than I could to, say, Oscar’s. In any case, I did start wondering why Diaz would have chosen a character like Oscar to place at the center of his novel. What, really, was he trying to accomplish in Oscar?
In retrospect, I think the problem that comes up with reading this novel is that it cannot be approached from the usual means/angles/whathaveyous that most works are approached through today. I think this novel attempts to function at a point beyond its own characters; maybe it can be classified as modern, “experimental” fiction. Actually, there is a class being taught at my previous institution, the University of Chicago, this winter (and which, in fact, I’m hoping to get in to) called “Poetics of Dislocation”. Although Diaz’s novel is a prose piece, I think much of it can and should be looked at through the lens which this class intends to employ in looking at certain poetry. The course description states:
“This course explores crises of placelessness and displacement as modern and contemporary verse has attempted to map them: from modernist cosmopolitan collage to poetry of exile, migration, and diaspora, the work we study, lodged between tongues, gives traction to discourse surrounding the abstraction of space in globalizing contexts. We examine the formal and social prompts and repercussions of experiments in polylingualism, dialect, creole, barbarism, and thwarted translation; we delve ultimately into some examples of poetic reckoning with the transformation of the site of reading, in the form of new media, installation, and otherwise ambient poetics.”
I would take this one step further and, going back to the novel’s treatment of time and space, argue that it combines this unique aspect with the “poetics of dislocation” of its prose to the point that it becomes a work that attempts to take a group of people’s unsettlement and form some kind of resolution out of it. I’m not sure what that resolution is yet, but I think that the use of different times, places, languages, people, sources of writing/narrative (letters, etc. which Yunior has used to piece together the family’s story), footnotes, and so on is the novel’s “experimental” condition, as it uses these to explore, well, the “crises of placelessness and displacement” which form the core of what Jennifer Scappettone calls works of “dislocation”.