Sunday, November 30, 2014

It is the things we love most that destroy us

If I had to use a single word to describe Mockingjay: Part One, it would be tense.

The opening of the film takes us to the aftermath of District 13's destruction. Katniss has been directly shipped from the games to the underground base where President Coin (Julianne Moore) and Head Gamemaker/rebel commander Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman; R.I.P) recruit her to be the face of the new rebellion. She agrees - on the condition that Coin will pull Peeta and the other tributes out of the Capitol at the earliest opportunity. The remainder of the film revolves around Katniss's role as "The Mockingjay," tracing the impact she spurs in the other districts and in the Capitol.

So, why tense? Humour is offered to us in sparse doses throughout the film. (The Hunger Games movies are not, after all, comedies.) We laugh when Katniss requests that Prim can keep her cat, chortle when the ever-fashionable Effie Trinket complains about having to wear a bland, grey jumpsuit, and smile as we watch Katniss tease her cat with a flashlight.

So, the film does not thrust us into complete darkness. Yet most of Mockingjay: Part One is destruction and dread. Death swamps Katniss as she witnesses the wreckage of District 13 with her own eyes, seeing her home reduced to rubble. We watch her go through anguish as the threat of losing "them both" - Gale and Peeta - becomes increasingly likely towards the end of the film. It's a tense and heavy first half of a movie to watch.

While Mockingjay: Part One concludes with Coin keeping her word, Peeta's return is not quite what Katniss had imagined. We barely get a look at his gaunt, bruised face before he lunges for Katniss's throat and begins what becomes the most chilling scene of the entire film. What more proof is needed of the Capitol's torture tactics once you see how it turns the antithesis of monstrosity - Peeta Mellark - into a monster?

While that remains the most terrifying part of the film, its best scene is, without a doubt, the singing scene. "You want me to sing?" Katniss asks - and off she goes, delivering a rendition of The Hanging Tree that soon morphs into a full-blown choir of rebels who storm the Capitol's dams in a suicide mission to wipe out its electricity; this is how a revolution kicks off! The political roots of the film run deep. Troops keep to their formations in the navy-blue rain, echoing Nazi rigidity and channeling dictatorship vibes. They remind us that the Capitol is unrelenting and headed by the cold and merciless President Snow.

So, the film owes its appeal to its daring themes - but also its characters. Again, Gale emerges as the loyal and stubborn best friend (emphasis on stubborn and friend), Haymitch makes welcome cameos (the sober life does not suit him), doe-eyed Sam Claflin sheds light on the exploits of the Capitol, but of course it is Katniss - or should I say Jennifer Lawrence - who completely robs the spotlight. Katniss is the face of the rebellion just as JLaw is the face of the movie. And, why not? She and Katniss are both bold and unafraid to speak up. (I just wish Katniss wouldn't be so self-effacing.)

Mockingjay: Part One was tense - but it has set the stage for its next half, which I wait for with anticipation.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

“Happiness, when it comes, is stronger than all the jerk girls in Santo Domingo combined.”

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When life gives you lemons, read anything written by Junot Díaz. I thought This is How you Lose Her was good, but The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao hits it out of the ballpark with infectious wit and 335 pages worth of what Michiko Kakutani from The New York Times aptly called, “adrenaline-powered prose.”

In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Díaz traces the family history and life story of Oscar de Léon, an overweight "ghetto nerd at the end of the world" who is fluent in Elvish, spews out words like "copacetic" in everyday conversation and is obsessed with, but sadly hopeless at wooing, women. Oscar is later nicknamed "Wao" because of his apparent resemblance to Oscar Wilde. I'll never know how Yunior, Oscar's roommate/best friend and the boyfriend of his sister (Lola) ever drew that comparison. While the novel is mostly set in modern-day New Jersey, its characters' stories often take us back to the time of Rafael Trujillo: the ruthless dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961.

Before we even meet Oscar, our narrator announces that his whole family is victim to fúku - "a curse or a doom of some kind" - that was cast on Oscar's grandfather, Abelard, after he upset the Trujillo. We are offered compelling evidence, such as the cruel deaths of Abelard’s wife and his daughters, that suggests fúku has indeed plagued the de Léon family for centuries and continues to work its voodoo on poor Oscar.

The main reason why Oscar is so unpopular with the ladies is that he defies the traditional qualities of masculinity. As our narrator informs us, “he wasn't no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock.” Unlike Yunior, whose muscle mass and success with women make him an alpha male of sorts, Oscar is an absolute nerd whose “commitment to the Genres had become absolute” by high school. Such nerdery is exemplified by the countless allusions to nerdfare throughout the novel: Yunior and Oscar’s exchange of “Mellon” (I was over the moon when I read this), the fact that the Gangster  "wasn’t no ringwraith but wasn't no orc, either," the X-wings and TIE-fighters hanging from Oscar’s ceiling… Oscar and Yunior would have nothing to do with each other if it weren’t for Lola and their mutual, Santo Dominican-love for women.

Yet it is fitting that Oscar is obsessed with the fantastical, for he himself is often submerged in his own fantasies. For example, he believes that “La Jablesse” is “the one” although, ironically enough, La Jablesse (which means “Devil Woman” in French) is infamous in Caribbean folklore for seducing men and luring them astray. Similarly, Oscar wholeheartedly believes that Ybón will leave the police for him, although his relentless attempts to win her over eventually lead to his death. Fúku at work?

The very existence of fúku reflects the deep-rooted historical context and tradition in the novel. On the one hand, Díaz reveals the Trujillo’s tyranny through the extensive footnotes that recur every few pages. (The size 8 pt font was unbearable at first, but grew on me.) More effectively, Díaz sheds light on the dictator’s omnipresence through the characters’ stories. For example, there is a comic juxtaposition between the casual and fatal in Beli and the Gangster’s affair: she is naïve and infatuated while he is part of the Trujillo’s ruthless and dictatorial family circle.

Furthermore, a strong sense of cultural identity penetrates the novel. There is frequent mention of diaspora and the idea of running away from home; Lola, of course, tries to do this many times. Yet the motherland will always call you back. The pungent and familiar smell of home hits Oscar hard when he returns to the DR to find:

 "... the surreal whirligig that was life in La Capital - the guaguas, the cops, the mind-boggling poverty, the Dunkin' Donuts, the beggars, the Haitians selling roasted peanuts at the intersections, the mind-boggling poverty, the asshole tourists hogging up all the beaches, [...] the mind-boggling poverty, the snarl of streets and rusting zinc shacks that were the barrios populares, the masses of niggers he waded through every day who ran him over if he stood still, the skinny watchmen standing in front of stores with their brokedown shotguns, the music, [...] the mind-boggling poverty ..."

That’s the most fabulous run-on sentence I’ve read in a while.

Of course, Díaz’s style contributes most to the indelible mark of culture in the novel. Our narrator is well versed in Dominican lingo, hitting us with “homeboys” from the very beginning. Thanks to Junot Díaz, I’ve learned my fair share of Spanish swear words. On a more serious note, however, such coarse language also mirrors the undercurrent of violence in the novel.

The brutality that increasingly emerges towards the end can be so shocking that you almost don’t believe it. We move from reading about LoTR in one page to Oscar’s beatings in another. Yet Díaz has a way of effortlessly planting dark humour in the midst of the horrific: “We’ll let you go if you tell us what fuego means in English. Fire, he blurted out, unable to help himself.” The storytelling way in which the novel unravels itself and the everyday naturalness of the surreal events that occur (e.g. the appearance of the mongoose) reminded me of the magic realism in Gabriel García Márquez’s The 100 Years of Solitude. What you read seems impossible, but – on mere pages – becomes utterly believable.  

Although the narrator of the novel is almost invisible, a seamless and flawless transition reveals Yunior to be our the storyteller. Perhaps this is why the title is not The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar de Léon, but rather The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – after all, Yunior came up with that nickname.

Just as when I read This is How You Lose Her, I'm struck by how effortlessly I support the protagonists. I mean, if I met anyone as stalker-ish and gaming-obsessed as Oscar in real life, I'd most likely make a run for it. Yet I wait impatiently for him to reappear in the novel as I read on, my fingers crossed that he will lose his virginity before his brief, wondrous life is over. I suppose this is the power of literature: it connects readers and characters, relays the impossible and elicits sympathy for the hopeless. Although Hong Kong and Santo Domingo are 22+ hours apart by plane, I was actually able to see a sliver of myself in Oscar:

“He read The Lord of the Rings for what I’m estimating the millionth time, one of his greatest loves and comforts since he’d first discovered it, back when he was nine and lost and lonely and his favourite librarian had said, Here try this, and with one suggestion changed his life. Got through almost the whole trilogy, but then the line “and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls” and he had to stop, his head and his heart hurting too much.”

There is much respect for the written word in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Early on, Yunior tells us that writing the book is his zafa, the counterspell to fúku. Indeed, when Oscar writers 15 pages in one sitting, is he not also writing to save himself? Yet regardless of whether or not fúku truly exists, “that’s life for you. All the happiness you gather to yourself, it will sweep away like it’s nothing. If you ask me I don’t think there are any such things as curses. I think there is only life. That’s enough.”

So, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an extraordinarily funny and moving tribute to nerds, the culture of the DR and – of course – “the beauty!” of life.

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