Friday, December 9, 2011

The Power of the Narrator

Among the many things I loved about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, my favorite is the narrator. I have a soft spot for narrators who are characters (in both literature and drama); I am enchanted by the power to step out of the narrative to comment, to reflect, to frame, to misdirect. The best narrators do all those things at once.

That is what captivates me about Brief Wondrous' narrator, Yunior. He positions himself as the machismo ideal, the athlete, the womanizer, the champion of the world; yet, he reveals himself by degrees to be deeply steeped in the nerd culture that he contemptuously tries to pull Oscar out of. Either Yunior is not the man he claims to be, or else his "sham" friendship with Oscar (he claims to have faked it all) was layered with a complexity that Yunior may not fully understand.

Yunior's voice is unique, as his perspective. Most of the great narrator characters tell their own story. It's a tried and true device to allow the audience into the mind of the protagonist: Holden Caulfield, Nathan Zuckerman, Humbert Humbert, and Huckleberry Finn all live at the center of their own storms. Yunior belongs to a much smaller class of narrators who relay to us what happened to someone else. The two closest comparisons (and ones I do not make lightly) are both anonymous: the narrator of Slaughterhouse Five (who tells us the story of Billy Pilgrim) and the narrator of Heart of Darkness (who tells us the story Marlow ostensibly told to him).

In all, Brief Wonderous is a fantastic read (or if you're an audiobook lover like me, a fantastic listen). If it's spend the last couple of years in the midst of your to-read list, it's time to put it at the top of the stack.

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