tongue-tied lightning

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
April 2, 2009, 4:30 PM
Filed under: lit


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao reads like the novel Gabriel Garcia-Marquez would’ve written had he grown up a Dominican in Brooklyn reading comic books and watching anime.  Perhaps I’m just describing Junot Diaz, but his Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel definitely shares something with the Latin American master’s best works.  A cool detatched feeling, a concern with family histories, a convincing blend of the fantastic and the real.

That isn’t the only allusion present in Diaz’s work.  The protagonist, Oscar de Leon, is an overweight Dominican “GhettoNerd”, and the narrator makes intertextual references to many of his obsessions: comics, from Jack Kirby’s work at Marvel and DC straight through to Watchmen and on to Love & Rockets and Eightball, anime, D&D, RPGs, and sci-fi/fantasy novels, especially those of Tolkein.  They are hardly gratuitous or chic, he invokes Sauron and Mordor to effectively convey the dread Dominicans felt living under the brutal rule of Trujillo, and references the ending of Watchmen to capture the same feeling Alan Moore created to end his own book.

I suppose this could be seen as lazy or shorthanded, and on a level it is, but it didn’t bother me.  It allows him to focus more directly on the story he set out to tell and dispenses with alot of unneeded exposition by borrowing from cultural touchstones.  And it’s not always so serious, sometimes the references are used to lighten an intense situation (for instance, one character suffers a brutal beating at the hands of the military police and says “I still had a few Hit Points left”) or just for laughs, as when Oscar puts a sign on his dorm-room door that reads “Speak, friend, and enter” “in fucking elvish!” as the narrator states.

It should be apparent by now that the dictatorial rule most of the carribean suffered through most of the 20th century plays an important part in the narrative.  Diaz spends nearly half the book recounting the lives of Oscar’s mother and grandfater in the Dominican before his mother immigrated to New Jersey in the 60s.  There are several footnotes throughout the book written by the narrator to provide those who “Slept through the required two minutes of Dominican Republic history in school” a frame of reference.  Once he mentions the “First US occupation of the DR” and in the footnotes quips “What? You didn’t know you occupied our country twice in the 20th century?  Don’t worry, your kids won’t know we ever occupied Iraq either.”

Diaz seems to be providing the reader wondering if a character as bizarre as Oscar is really out there, with an explanataion.  He is perhaps the lack of identity experienced by Dominicans after their diaspora to the New York area realized on an extreme level.  In addition to the numerous references to genre fiction there is quite a bit of Spanish in the book.  Much like the allusions to other works, most of the important ones are either common knowledge or can be picked up contextually, and glossing over the others didn’t impact my enjoyment of the novel.

In addition to his more absurd obsessions, Oscar, perhaps a true Dominican after all, shares an obsession with women and sex.  This is compounded by his bizarre appearance and antisocial/unaccepted habits.  The book features many side trips and digressions to provide context and character along with clarifications, but at it’s simplest, could be summarized as Oscar’s journey as he attempts to satisfy these urges, to experience love at it’s most primal.

Is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, as the Pulitzer would suggest, the best book of 2007, one of the best of the decade?  Maybe not, but it would be hard to argue it doesn’t belong in the conversation.  It’s a wonderfully satisfying tragicomedy with cultural significance.  A unique look into a world I was unaware of, I must have dozed off during the required two minutes of Dominican history I was supposed to learn in Mr. Kerr’s class, but but encouched in an amusing, if ultimately tragic, tale.


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