The Only One Who Speaks

In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the narrator Yunior describes an interesting antagonism between writers and dictators [1]

What is it with dictators and writers anyway? Since before the infamous Caesar-Ovid war they have had beef. Like the Fantastic Four and Galactus, like the X-men and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, like the Teen-Titans and Deathstroke, Forman and Ali, Morrison and Crouch, Sammy and Sergio, they seem destined to be eternally linked in the halls of battle. Rushdie claims that tyrants and scribblers are natural antagonists. But I think that’s too simple. It lets writers off pretty easy. Dictators, in my opinion, just know competition when they see it. Same with writers. Like, after all, recognizes like. - The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscao Wao, Junot Diaz

For the longest time, my humanist leanings led me to read this quote rather transparently. It was the standard narrative of good versus evil. I saw those lonely transcribers of culture and history working throughout centuries, against fear and self-doubt, to expose the reality of despots who sought to control their populaces through propaganda and violence. In this perspective, writers existed in opposition to dictators as surely, and as tritely, as superheroes existed in opposition to villains.

But a closer reading suggests Díaz is not being so self-congratulatory. What unites autocrats and novelists is the simultaneous — and thus dangerous — fungibility and potency of their narratives. In a story of a person, an event, or even a country there is always a space between a presumed reality as it is depicted on a page and a reality as it is lived through people’s experiences. Recognizing such a distance one is naturally led to fault the limitations of the medium that attempts to navigate it. More insidiously, if the lived experience of an event cannot be entirely communicated through that event’s mere exposition, is it not also possible that an exposition could lead one to believe something not faithful to reality? For when there is only a single architect (writer or autocrat) controlling a narrative is it not possible for an audience to live within this narrative as though it were reality itself?

Díaz defines “El dictador” as “The only one who speaks,” but he does this ironically for he knows the definition applies just as well to writers. The writer and the dictator both have parasitic relationships with their audiences which masquerade as co-dependency or benefaction. They appear to provide one value in exchange for respect and admiration, but the value they provide — manageable and comprehensible depictions of human experience — is illusory and possibly confining as it is based on something not at all naturally found in the world we all occupy. And what they take from the audience — validation of themselves — is what the audience believes, inaccurately, “Los dictadores” are providing to them. But what audiences are really receiving is a constructed reality which fails constantly to mesh sensibly with an outside world. And frustration, confusion, and hopelessness are the negative end results when one applies narratives outside of the simple regimes of applicability in which these stories were first created.

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When I was younger, I loved Ayn Rand’s books for many of the reasons the young enjoy her work: Because I felt disaffected, lonely, and misunderstood, and I believed these states were imposed upon me by my environment. And although my appreciation of her writing tempered as I grew older, unlike much of the culture which now categorically vilifies Rand, I still see a considerable potency and relevance in what she had written. Surely something which resonated with so many people could not in fact be completely untrue of the world, and thus, if nothing else, Rand was saying something about how people like to see themselves.

And so even after I grew out (or, thought I grew out) of the self-absorption which initially attached me to her fiction, I still remained intrigued by the effect it had on people. How could so many identify with her work even amidst the clear space between Rand’s truth and the lived truth of people’s lives? I mean surely we knew the world did not really bear out in such harsh relief the assumptions she made about humans and their actions? Did we really believe society would turn into an economic elysium when people were as mechanically self-interested as John Galt and his entourage in Atlas Shrugged? Did we think poor career choices inevitably led to the permanent self-alienation Peter Keating felt at the end of The Fountainhead?

The dissonance between her words and the reality they represented led me to a disconcerting respect for Rand’s ability to construct a persuasive narrative even if I no longer saw universal truth in the specific content of that narrative. Because it was not exactly that Rand was attempting to manipulate people’s insecurities and anger — although that was precisely what she was doing — but that the language in which she was writing was so polemical and confident — so, one might say, autocratic — that it seemed specifically geared to give stability to those who most wanted some foundational principles by which to live a life. For Americans, she painted the world as black and white, and thereby gave voice to the simple stories people wanted to believe, the stories they perhaps had always somehow believed but had never been able to articulate themselves, stories which were the foundation for how they saw themselves and their country.

Of course there is indeed something about Americans and their collective histories that makes the simple narratives of black and white dichotomies not merely an attractive but an almost necessary way of framing a life. In spite of the name, this framing has nothing superficially — and perhaps everything deeply — to do with the history of racism in this country. It rather has more to do with how people understand themselves and the need for that understanding to be expressed, if not necessarily according to what one is, most certainly according to what one is not. And while I have many times been on the receiving end of being limited by such a perspective on life, it seems that I, like most people cannot help adopting it when it is convenient.

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Long ago I began and later abandoned an essay on narrative manipulation. The point of the essay was to illustrate the importance of personal research and questioning when reading political articles or watching cable news. I showed many examples, all from conservative web sites or statements by Republican congressmen, of how someone could construct a convincing narrative by employing logical fallacies, a biased report of evidence, and a selective interpretation of statistics. What I eventually realized was that the very essay I was writing was an example of the problem I was writing about. In order to guide the reader to a conclusion I believed, I was subtly employing the techniques I disparaged.

Now, is this an inevitable facet of writing? Possibly. Most writers would not admit that their work consists primarily of directing and channeling what and how the reader thinks, but is this not the end result when a book is successful, that is, when a book is said to have “changed” a reader? Adept writers can do this with such softness of touch that at the end of their work you’re led to believe that what you have learned is absolutely true and would be true regardless of what you have just read. But by receiving a message from a single voice, it is difficult to escape the fact that the world that your mind lives in, for the time that the voice is speaking and even some time after, is one which is created.

This idea has been unsettling to me, a person who spends so much time immersed in the narratives others have created. It seems that much of the legitimacy I lend to these narratives has as much to do with their actual legitimacy as the cultural narratives of consumerism, achievement, and material wealth I reflexively reject have to do with a well-lived life. What is it that makes certain narratives so compelling, and what is it about us that makes us so willing to be compelled by them?

In explaining his work, Díaz said the real story of A Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao could not be gleaned by following precisely where Yunior, the omniscient narrator, led or to where the intellectual insecurity Yunior deliberately creates in the reader may push you [2]:

If you listen to Yunior on where you should put your eye on the text, you will miss the whole book. So when Yunior says look up Trujillo, as soon as you start following him, you’re fucked. You would do better reading against his voice. - Junot Diaz, New York Public Library

I imagine that many people see Díaz’s writing as an outcropping of the current ethnic and cultural zeitgeist that grips this country. The white Anglo-Saxon protestants who so dominated social and artistic affairs through shear numerical magnitude and political power, now comprise an ever decreasing majority in this country and formerly marginalized groups are receiving opportunities to have influential voices in arenas where previously they would have been talking to themselves. This is a superficial reading of Díaz’s work, a way of missing the whole point. The surface level story of Oscar Wao is that of a boy searching for and ultimately finding love, which lasts just for a moment before his death. But more surreptitiously, Oscar Wao, through the narration of Yunior, is about the stories people tell us and the stories we grant credibility. The book poses the question, given that these stories are often so unreliable, why do we accept them so uncritically?

James Baldwin has this perceptive idea that we believe in what we believe, not necessarily because it follows from clear-eyed inductions from reality but because we need these beliefs in order to sanely live within a reality we don’t really understand. Most learned truths about the world are confused and complicated, bearing Neils Bohr’s hallmark of a deep truth in which even their seemingly antithetical statements are also somehow true of the world. But people compartmentalize the spectrum of answers about the world into a coarse binary of right and wrong, not because the world is actually black and white, but because it is simply easier to engage with when we assume it is.

It seems then that the reason we are so often compelled by limited narratives, the reason we freely grant legitimacy to narratives which are simplified representations of a life, is precisely because they are so simple. Perhaps we need these simpler representations not only because they are easier to manage and understand but also because they support our sense of agency in direct contradiction to a world which seems to so constantly deny it.

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[1] Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Penguin, 2007.

[2] Díaz, Junot. “Junot Díaz on Intimacy and the Game of Fiction.” Audio blog post. The New York Public Library Podcast. The New York Public Library, 19 Jan 2016. Web. 15 Jan 2016.

This work was first published in the Dudley Literary Review in 2017


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