Book publishing has all but shut down for the break between Christmas and New Year’s, the fall semester is over, and for the first time in a year I’ve had a full week of vacation to myself. It’s been so, so good. So what have I been doing with my time? Besides eating Ethiopian and Indian food and going to the movies (Juno and Sweeney Todd, four out of five stars each) and hanging out with my friends? And meditating a lot? Not visiting my crazy family, that’s for sure! And, best of all — the reason for this post — I’ve been curling up with actual books, not manuscripts, and getting caught up on all the reading for pleasure I’ve been meaning to do.
(Small digression, because it’s Christmas and I’m indulging: usually I read short stories when I’m not reading for work — they’re the best thing on the subway — and most recently read Nathan Englander’s For the Relief of Unbearable Urges — which is an amazing collection, and came out seven years ago, and I should be embarrassed to admit I only read it just now, but I thought I’d dig into it before I started on the novel, and plus he’s going to be teaching in the MFA program at Hunter next year, so I wanted to know his work.)
So anyway. I finally got to read the novel I’ve been waiting to crack open: The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. It’s one of the most amazing books I’ve read all year, and the most fun linguistically since Clockwork Orange (easily one of my personal top ten novels, should I ever bother to make such a list). By page ten I was so awed by how awesome it was I even caught myself thinking, “Damn, I’ll never be as good as this guy, might as well quit now.” But this isn’t going to be a review — book came out back in September — but, what else, a dharma take on its protagonist.
Oscar Wao may not be a Buddhist (though he’s fat enough to look like Hotei), but he’s a walking (waddling?) lesson in craving and desire. He’s hopelessly dorky, completely unattractive, and desperately — like Gordon Gano desperately — in need of romantic love. He falls in love with girls everywhere — girls he knows, girls he’s only seen on the street — but he’s so hell-no ugly he never even gets a kiss. Though few of us are that unlucky, who here can’t identify with a character like him? Always wanting, never being satisfied . . .
(Digression two: David Gates, in his review of Oscar Wao in Newsweek, for some reason picks the novel’s womanizing narrator, Yunior, as being “more like ourselves” than Oscar. Maybe as a woman I resist identifying with Yunior much, and maybe Gates, as the author The Wonders of the Invisible World (of one of the best story collections ever, right up there with Barthelme and Carver) (it’s mostly about older guys having affairs with younger women) naturally finds Yunior more his style. All I ever seem to write are crappy paeans to fucked love, so maybe that’s why Oscar means so much to me.)
But back to Buddhism. Oscar’s need for romantic love (okay, sex) is so powerful it leads to his undoing — nothing new in literature — and to say his life is an example of the suffering cause by craving would not be a fresh observation. But reading Oscar makes me wonder: is the Buddha asking for too much when he enjoins his monks to abstain from sex? Isn’t the need for romantic love too essentially human to let go? I know what you’re thinking — a lot of essentially human needs run counter to our Buddha nature — aggression, craving, fear, and above all delusion are inborn — they’re instincts evolution has bred into us for survival — and reproduction! But, seriously. Wtf? Is it so wrong to be driven completely batshit crazy over love?
Okay, yes, it is. The Buddha gave teachings to lay practitioners that included advice for how lovers should treat each other (one of my favorites is about not hooking up with a person someone else has “crowned with flowers” — but what if they didn’t want the flowers??), and the third precept, for non-monks, is about abstaining from harmful sexual relations (no cheating, or doing anything that would cause harm), not about abstaining from sex and love altogether. But what if you’re Oscar, and no one loves you back? Wouldn’t the healthy desire for love and intimacy naturally cause him to lose his mind? (And make him overeat — another aspect of craving — when he’s most unhappy.) Should he be told to just “let go”?
I don’t know. One writer I like to turn to is Mark Epstein, whose impossibly brainy books are well worth the time it takes to read every paragraph twice (or, if you parenthetically space out as much as I do, three times). His book about desire goes a long way toward answering this question, but something he talks about in Going on Being gets at it even more specifically, and since I read it just before reading Oscar Wao I can’t resist making the connection: one patient Epstein writes about was having a lot of trouble letting go of erotic fantasies, and Epstein relates this kind of attachment to pleasure to a loss of connection to our own intrinsic happiness (page 167 of the hardcover, for dorks reading along at home). Since I’m a little out of my depth here I’ll quote directly: “The Buddha made the very important point that there is another kind of happiness besides sensual gratification, one that the attachment to erotic fantasy tends to hide. This other kind of happiness, that of going on being, is a birthright that is often lost to the pursuit of pleasure. We lose touch with our own intrinsic happiness as we start to search for external gratification . . .”
I think, in Oscar’s case, it’s clear that’s what happened: he was unhappy before he started dreaming hopelessly about girls. Too smart for his own good, from a cursed and broken family, and part of the diaspora of a cursed and broken country (the DR post dictatorship), had he any alternative but to crave? Yunior, too, was from Oscar’s world, and had craving issues (addiction to sex, destroying his relationship with the girl he loved most). And poor Oscar, because he craved so much, and ate so much, had no hope.