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Love, Dorkdom and Desire: a Dharma reading of Oscar Wao

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.

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Ethan Nichtern

posted December 28, 2007 at 8:52 am

Okay. Too many people have told me to read this book. So I will add it to the queue. But you gotta chill with the “I’ll never be this good crap.” I don’t buy it, Talmadge. :~) I read Drown. The stories were good, some really good, but I thought Mr. Diaz was at that time a bit overhyped. I didn’t see a ton of writerly range in Drown. I saw a really direct niche voice.
Also had the same thought about Nathan Englander when I read that collection. Of course, at any given moment, the book EVERYONE is reading comes across as overhyped by definition, so it’s not really their fault. I should stop dissing. I’m not – both are writers I like.
By the way, it is very very dangerous to literally read the Buddha’s 6th Century BCE advice to lay people. He didn’t give absolute advice, he gave advice relative to the Vedic Caste Culture of the time. That culture is so ridiculously different from ours (for example, I don’t believe ANYONE was casually dating), that using at as a template for our conduct is at best hard to translate morally, and at worst can cause a lot of problems. However, what the historical Budda supposedly said can often contain nuggets of relevant advice. But not always. It’s pretty tricky.

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posted December 28, 2007 at 10:44 am

Dammit! I wanted to review this book here! Diaz is excellent.

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posted December 28, 2007 at 6:09 pm

But hype is what publishing is all about! And I *like* taking 6th century BCE dating advice literally. It’s so much more fun that way!

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posted December 28, 2007 at 7:29 pm

this is a really great post about a truly excellent novel, that I couldn’t be happier to have just been recently given as a gift. I blasted through it, and finished it this afternoon.
one comment re what David Gates said in Newsweek about Yunior being “more like ourselves”– I don’t think he meant it literally, as in Yunior’s a baller like we is ballers. I think what he meant was that Oscar is such a romantic-tragic figure that he is basically a one-dimensional character, or at least not fully human. this is not the same thing as saying he’s a bad character, and indeed i think most people have known (or been!) Oscars at one time or another, but there is in the book an unrelenting sense of his being “too pure for this world” or otherwise larger than (or outside of) life. I suspect this is the reason why even though Oscar is the central “figure” in the book, all the real compelling action happens to other people. The action of the book radiates out from him, or comes to its head in (upon) him, but most of it isn’t his. That’s also why Oscar can’t be the narrator of the whole book (I suspect this is one of the thing Diaz was figuring out during the course of his 11 years spent writing it): it would have turned the thing into a one-note song, because Oscar only ever feels one way (except when he feels the opposite way: flip side of the same coin, and doesn’t everything always already contain its own opposite? so in that sense there is no change). It’s the same reason that Marlowe has to narrate Lord Jim rather than Jim himself; Heathcliff can’t narrate Wuthering Heights; the Disciples narrate the New Testament rather than JC himself, and so on. Oscar may be super-human, sub-human, or supra-human, but in any case he’s not flesh and blood in the same way Lola, Yunior and the rest of them are.

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