Junot Díaz: The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao
For the rest of the world, who had been waiting over ten years for Díaz’s first novel, following on from his short story collection, Drown, I hope the wait was worth it. For me, having never heard of Díaz until his book, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao (2007) took the 2008 Pulitzer Prize there was no weight of expectation hanging around, waiting to confirm him as a genius or to wallow in what could have been. And were it not for the Pulitzer I would probably have remained ignorant of it as the cover is…well, ugly. Not something I’d pick up, never mind read.
Wao being a distortion of Wilde, used to ridicule him, the Oscar of the title is actually Oscar de León, an overweight nerd of Dominican heritage living in the United States who, unlike his skirt chasing contemporaries, is more into sci-fi, fantasy, role-playing games, and writing novels. Not that he doesn’t attempt some skirt chasing himself, it’s just that his lines, along with the rest of him, need a bit of work:
Anywhere else his triple-zero batting average with the ladies might have passed without comment, but this is a Dominican kid we’re talking about, in a Dominican family: dude was supposed to have Atomic Level G, was supposed to be pulling in the bitches with both hands. Everybody noticed his lack of game and because they were Dominican everybody talked about it.
Dominicans talking is nothing new – it’s in their history. And the history of the Dominican Republic plays a large role in The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao. While the idea of Oscar’s bad luck, to some, is something to be skeptical about, it could possibly be attributed to a curse in the family, referred to as fukú:
But the fukú ain’t just ancient history, a ghost story from the past with no power to scare. In my parent’s day the fukú was real as shit, something your everyday person could believe in…But in those elder days, fukú had it good; it even had a hypeman of sorts, a high priest you could say. Our then dictator for life Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina.
The life of Trujillo, whose reign was one of the 20th Century’s bloodiest, and lasted over thirty year, mixes with the history of Oscar’s mother and grandfather and ties them neatly together. And with a narrator -who doesn’t reveal himself until late into the novel – that wasn’t actually there at the events he relates, there’s much filling in of the blanks. There’s footnotes, too – loads of them – providing further history about Trujillo and the Dominican Republic, and it’s an unsettling experience, being dragged between narrative and notes, that soon becomes annoying.
And when it comes to annoying, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao has another ace up its sleeve in the use of ghetto Spanglish. It’s understandable why Díaz has done this, given that it’s his narrator’s voice and to not do so would lessen its power but the Spanish is sometimes laid on so thick that, save taking time out to look up words and phrases, the context sheds no light. Reading this was reminiscent of the white boy in the wrong neighbourhood stereotype. However, I didn’t feel too fussed by the peppering of sci-fi and fantasy references, mostly alien too, because they seemed more like texture, whereas the Spanish felt important.
Yet, even when it annoys, the novel has an energy to its prose the likes of which I’ve not enjoyed for a while. It picks you up, and carries you along, to the end. Personally, I found the sections detailing Oscar’s relatives’ lives the least engaging, perhaps because of the distance between the narrator and the tales, whereas the Oscar sections flow with warmth, love, and humour. That they do is a pity because Oscar’s role, despite being the titular character, is minimal on the surface, with Díaz using him as a way in to writing about his political interests in the Dominican Republic.
I know I’ve approached the novel from the wrong angle – or at least, not that which Díaz likely intended – but when the book became a lost cause for me, I relied on the sections about Oscar to get me through. Who couldn’t love the nerd, even if some of his interests….well, you know:
Could write in Elvish, could speak Chakobsa, could differentiate between a Slan, a Dorsai, and a Lensman in acute detail, knew more about the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee, and was a role-playing fanatic…Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn’t have passed for normal if he’d wanted to.
While he may not pass for normal, Oscar certainly makes an interesting character and it’s a shame that, for all the interesting history and story there, I couldn’t enjoy the book, except for the brief and wondrous pages of Oscar Wao.
July 25, 2008