Books

The Death of Oscar de León

Junot Díaz on mixing tragedy and comedy.

Oscar Wao graffiti imposed over a sugar cane field
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus and Amazon.

This interview is part of a series about the 50 greatest fictional deaths of all time. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Slate: As a reader I remember thinking, Yes, Oscar made it out! And then—goddammit, he heads back. Did you always know you’d kill Oscar off at the end of the book, or did it come to seem inevitable as you wrote?

Junot Díaz: I always knew Oscar was (in the inimitable phrase of Carol Clover’s) “scheduled for destruction.” The book began with the title, strangely enough. A title that gave me the DNA code for the entire novel. The allusive density, the tragicomic sensibility, and the hapless “protagonist” who doesn’t even get to name himself. What I didn’t have at the start was the cause of death. As I composed the novel, I had the framework of the curse, which afflicts Oscar’s family, but I needed to undercut and complicate that narrative gimmick by showing how often we’re our own worst curse. Both Oscar and his mother, Beli, are given second chances to escape their dooms, and yet both ultimately “go back.” I’ve always disliked stories where characters are doomed no matter what they do. I prefer tales where a character’s doom is caught up in their agentic foolishness.

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Oscar’s death is a real mix of nobility and haplessness, a mix that has previously characterized his life. What made this frightening death with a side order of comedy seem like the fitting end for this character?

This is a story about silencing erasures, about dictatorships and trauma that tear that tongue out of people’s heads and the hearts out of their chests. Honesty, doubt, witness, communication, frivolity, gossip—all are defiant responses to such criminal caesuras. Our narrator, Yunior, cannot help himself—even in a moment of death he tries to keep alive the generative force of language as a site of human possibility, of hope. But below and beyond those lofty concerns was the very Caribbean inability to keep genres “straight.” In the U.S., tragedy and comedy are sold as highly distinct, but in the world where I grew up, that was never the case. The human always exceeds the narrative container with which we seek to circumscribe it. And growing up in the Caribbean, in the aftermath of every colonial apocalypse imaginable, that was a lesson I absorbed.

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You play with POV a lot in Oscar Wao, but mostly Yunior tells us the story. But at the end of the novel, we’re given the gift of seeing Oscar’s final moments, even though Yunior’s not there. Why did you make that decision?

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Because Yunior is very aware of most readers’ desire for the consolatory omniscience of the all-seeing narrator. Even as Yunior criticizes that urge throughout the book, an urge which leads many readers to lend authority to narrators they should be very wary of—a political problem as well as a literary one—Yunior also takes advantage of that desire. It was all part of the writer-as-dictator theme I was working in throughout. Interesting perhaps only to the writer.

Read more about the 50 greatest fictional deaths of all time, including Junot Díaz’s own picks for the greatest.

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