- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
- Riverhead, 352 pp.
Riffing on the Novel
Pity the modern novel – it’s been through hell in the past century. It’s been sliced (whaddup Ms. Woolf), diced (cheers Faulkner) and pureed (I’m talking to you Pynchon). It’s been turned on its head and turned inside out, pared down to a bare minimum (ah, Didion) or engorged with detail.
It’s also been the enemy and friend of writers working outside “western” traditions – a framework that only sometimes allows for myth, orality, and multidimensional culture. Highly convenient and easy to move around in, sure, but so’s a quickimart.
Junot Díaz, a hustle and flow stylist transplanted in his youth from the Dominican Republic, came onto the literary scene with his collection of short stories Drown. Now, in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, he takes pen in hand, as it seems all respected authors are required to do, and stabs it into the old form.
Writing in a flood of English and Spanish, high faluting vocab and down in the dirt slang, philosophy and gritty sex/violence (often the two are one), Díaz tells of the uncommon hero Oscar Wao.
Like Díaz, Wao is an ex-pat who spends his childhood in the soulless suburbs of New Jersey. Immersed in sci-fi and comic books, role-playing games and fantasy, the obese Oscar does not realize that his family has been touched by the fukú, “the Curse and Doom of the New World,” brought over with Columbus when he first set foot on Hispaniola.
With this as his starting point, Díaz plays the curse out through a series of interwoven narratives, jumping back and forth in time. There’s the observations of a boy who grows up with Oscar, watching him floundering through adolescence and towards his doom, there’s the story of his sister Lola (told in the first person), of his mother (told in the third), and eventually the tragedy of his grandparents.
That’s the conventional framework. But Díaz is after something more than the conventional here, more than the “what it’s like to be an immigrant family and feel torn between two homes” story.
He’s going political, he’s asking if the Dominican Republic itself is cursed. To do so, he needs to take readers past baseball-player/lusty-lover stereotypes and into the neglected history of his birthplace. So, like Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker series, he tosses in extended (and I mean extended) footnotes to help and berate and tease us along.
They’re mostly concerned with the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, the failed cattle thief, who ruled the country like a private fiefdom from 1931-1960:
“Almost as soon as he grabbed the presidency, the Failed Cattle Thief sealed the country away from the rest of the world – a forced isolation that we’ll call the Plátano Curtain. As for the country’s historically fluid border with Haiti – which was more baká than border – the Failed Cattle Thief became like Dr. Gull in From Hell; adopting the creed of the Dionyesian Architects, he aspired to become an architect of history, and through a horrifying ritual of silence and blood, machete and perjil, darkness and denial, inflicted a true border on the countries…”
It’s Trujillo’s reign that Oscar’s grandparents are caught up in, and it’s the fall-out from this event that blights his family tree.
Now, putting that into the mouths of New Jersey teenagers looking for freedom or identity or a quick shag isn’t going to work, and Díaz knows it. The footnotes also point out how little “they” (the teenagers) and “we” (the readers) know about third world history. The implied pun in fukú isn’t haphazard.
Even with the footnotes, though, Díaz can’t help himself. Commentary creeps in everywhere, lacing the personal stories with his exploding word riffs on the aftermath of colonialism.
It’s heady and fabulous stuff, but it makes for blurry lines, especially when it comes to character. You wonder how much of Junot is in Oscar (or Oscar is in Junot), especially in the first part of the book, when Oscar’s obsessions are paralleled in the prose – Trujillo is the Dark Lord Sauron from The Lord of the Rings (that got a little old), a third worlder is like Jack Kirby’s Uatu the Watcher, etc.
And while Oscar, the aspiring writer, tanks miserably, the addition of his counterpart, the thinner and more successful boyfriend of Lola, made me wonder how much Díaz is working out some inner struggles about growing up in the United States. Like his younger characters, he too stands on the outside of his own suffering country, preoccupied with personal needs.
As for the women, well, Díaz dunks us into a culture of misogyny and respect, of stubborn, quarrelsome, sexy sisters, mothers, and survivors, but I’m not sure he’s quite made it into their heads yet. Perhaps the weakest section, for me, was the one in which Oscar’s sister tells her story.
So who’s the standout in all these narratives? I’m going to go with the Dominican Republic on this one, for I think that’s who Díaz is talking to and for, his abused and abandoned mother, his on-fire adolescent.
Oscar’s blubbery steps towards doom didn’t hold me nearly as much as Díaz’s gradual unfolding of the past, putting words and personalities on the tabula rasa, the página en blanco, the blank white page of the Dominican Republic’s westernized history.
Nor did the hurried ending or the occasional lapse into a kind of postmodern cliché (yes, it’s the Matrix again) take too much away from it. This critique isn’t personal – Díaz knows he’s pushing it. While Oscar’s sudden new girlfriend might be a symbol of how love can redeem a tarnished past, she’s also pretty convenient:
“I know what Negroes are going to say. Look he’s writing Suburban Tropical now…Can’t we believe that an Ybón can exist and that a brother like Oscar might be due a little luck after twenty-three years? This is your chance. If blue pill, continue. If red pill, return to the Matrix.”
So what if we lost Oscar a bit through the middle? The book says there’s a literary way to combat the curse, the dark lord, the shadow of dictators and western collusion and systemic violence. Even after it has been beaten, reshaped, and beaten again, the country has a chance if its authors stand up and write.
This book isn’t a book, it’s a jazz piece, a series of improvisations on Díaz’s country, using the characters as the instruments. As a novel, I thought it was disjointed (that short story gene kicking in), now and again haphazard, and infrequently completely off the point. As a jazz piece, however, I like it just fine.
Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.