What makes Oscar and Yunior’s unlikely friendship work?

In many ways, Oscar and Yunior are polar opposites, but the complementary nature of their differences enable them to develop an unlikely and meaningful friendship. Considering the personality Oscar developed as an adolescent, it seems surprising that he would ever have become friends with Yunior. Yunior is a macho jock who takes pride in his Dominican sexual prowess and his ability to attract women. He consistently proves himself unable to remain faithful to any one woman. Near the end of the novel, Yunior admits that he continues to cheat even now that he’s married. Oscar, by contrast, is shy, nerdy, and perpetually worried about his apparently insufficient masculinity. He loves women, but no matter how hard he tries, he can’t get a girlfriend. Unlike Yunior, however, Oscar shows a strong capacity for fidelity, often continuing to love his crushes long after they’ve rejected him.

Although these differences occasionally cause conflict, they also complement one another in ways that allow both characters to grow. Oscar initially resists Yunior’s attempts to get him to eat better, exercise, and dress with more care, but he later puts Yunior’s lessons to use when pursuing Jenni and Ybón. Oscar eventually locates a source of power and confidence in himself that Yunior encouraged him to find. For Yunior’s part, he learns about the need to become more self-reflective about his own sexual identity from Oscar. Yunior also learns the importance of genres like science fiction and fantasy. In particular, he learns their value for understanding the history of the Caribbean. As the very novel we are reading indicates, Yunior’s creative writing has become more like Oscar’s. Whereas in college he used to write action stories full of violence, Yunior has now written a narrative that strongly resembles fantasy in its focus on an ancient fukú curse. As these examples of mutual influence suggest, both Oscar and Yunior gained something from their unlikely friendship precisely because they each offered something the other lacked.

What role does untranslated Spanish play in the book?

Yunior’s use of untranslated Spanish throughout Oscar Wao mimics “code-switching.” Code-switching is a term from linguistics that refers to a practice in which speakers of a shared multilingual community switch frequently between two or more languages or dialects within a single conversation. With this definition in mind, the use of untranslated Spanish reflects Yunior’s identity as a member of the Dominican diaspora. Whereas foreign words are typically italicized in many English-language texts, the Spanish words in this novel appear in regular type. By doing so, the author affirms that Spanish is not a “foreign” language in the Dominican diaspora community. For readers who know Spanish, and particularly for those familiar with Dominican Spanish, Yunior’s code-switching will feel comfortable, even familiar. By contrast, readers who lack proficiency in Spanish may find the reading experience more alienating. But such an experience also carries meaning since it encourages these readers to acknowledge the limits to their personal understanding of other languages and cultures.

Yunior’s use of untranslated Spanish creates an important parallel to his use of unexplained pop culture references, which operates like a third language in the book. Here, too, the principle of code-switching applies. Code-switching isn’t always about moving between languages in the conventional sense. People who technically speak the same language may sometimes have difficulty communicating because they belong to different cultural communities. For example, Yunior once warned Oscar that he had problems attracting women because he spoke English “like a Star Trek computer.” Yunior’s own writing makes many references to science fiction and fantasy. Without explanation, he deploys allusions to things like “the Ritual of Chüd” (from Stephen King’s IT) and “Darkseid” (a DC comics supervillain). He also references various elements from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth universe. Just as Yunior’s use of untranslated Spanish encourages readers with a knowledge of Spanish, his use of unexplained references to science fiction and fantasy welcomes readers with a knowledge of these genres.

What does Yunior mean when he claims in footnote 11 (Chapter 3) that writers are similar to dictators?

When Yunior claims that writers are similar to dictators, he means that both groups of people have a strong desire for unlimited control. Yunior introduces this idea by referencing the Anglo-Indian writer Salman Rushdie, who once famously quipped that dictators saw writers as their natural enemies. Yunior disagrees with Rushdie’s assessment. To his mind, if dictators tend to terrorize writers, they do so because they see writers as competitors rather than enemies. That is, both writers and dictators essentially want the same things. Although Yunior doesn’t explain himself further here, the reader can note some informative linguistic similarities. Consider the word dictator. This noun implies the related verb, to dictate, which refers to an action in which one person says words aloud that someone else writes down or types. In this sense, a dictator is someone who dictates—that is, someone who writes. Similarly, consider the word author, which implies two related words: authority and authoritarian. An authoritarian is a person who exerts absolute authority over others—which is to say, a dictator. In terms of language, dictators and writers are closely linked.

Aside from etymology, the reader can also interpret Yunior’s meaning by paying attention to what he says throughout the rest of the book about the dictator Trujillo. According to the portrait Yunior paints of him, Trujillo was a man who aspired to total control over the Dominican Republic and its people. He acted like he personally owned everything and everyone, and he desperately wanted to have a hand in every event that occurred throughout the island nation. More than anything, Trujillo wanted to control the destiny of the Dominican Republic. He wanted everything in the world to reflect his version of the truth. Like Trujillo, most writers aspire to have complete control over their stories, their characters, and the entire imaginative world in which their characters exist. They want to leave nothing to chance, and in their struggle for ultimate authority over the material, they become dictators of sorts.