The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), by Junot Diaz


Diaz’s first novel is a celebrated one: Pulitzer, National Book Critics Circle Award, lots of critical bombast (though, so far, little applause from other writers). He is a Dominican-American, 40, with one other book, a collection of short stories called Drown which appeared eleven years ago.

So he is a “bleeder.”

Diaz, who now teaches literature at MIT, loves science fiction and fantasy, though his novel isn’t such albeit its hero, Oscar, a lonely misfit of a Dominican-American teenager who is in love early with Marvel comic books and old, classic fantasy novels, aspires to be the Dominican Tolkien.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, titularly inspired by Oscar Wilde, and the buzzing hottest novel around at the moment, is a saga about Dominicans back there in the Caribbean and over here along the East River, coming and going from the Dominican Republic to Manhattan/New Jersey and America and importantly not coming here from European and Asian Old Worlds but from another place in the hemispheric New World, during the period from the Trujillo dictatorship (1940s and 1950s) through the 1990s.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an important period piece, stylistically and thematically, told by a young Dominican-American narrator, Yunior (from Junot, no?), who with Oscar Wao grew up as a first-generation immigrant in the 1980s in New Jersey. There are many people (“voices” in today’s lit crit jargon) in this complex story, but the principal character is Yunior’s friend, Oscar, a highly intelligent three-hundred-pound Dominican-American “nerd” who attends a Newark high school and then Rutgers, all the while and beyond in his brief life entirely unsuccessful with girls, any girls, and, lovelorn and sad, compulsively reading Bova and Asimov and Tolkien and, inspired, scribbling away throughout to ease himself toward and into a happier fantasy world of his own making, a fictional epic that sounds something like a latter-day version of The Lord of the Rings.

Diaz has written a novel on the grand scale, not entirely unlike an extended sitcom in form (if far superior in merit) in which several plots occur and coalesce and the past and the present, visited not linearly but via a complex temporal mosaic, are artistically woven almost into one long magical Present, a superb and difficult storytelling sleight-of-hand Diaz performs brilliantly. Fundamental to, and reinforcing of, Diaz’s method and inspired madness here is an old curse called “fuku'” he tells us has long been believed universally among Caribbean peoples and signifying the pending doom of the New World sometime, the curse first brought about in 1492 by the “Admiral” when he came to the New World (it being a sure way among people in the Caribbean absolutely to bring down that curse on your own head should you actually utter “Columbus”).

So: we have what appears a classic generational American novel: a young New American hero, Oscar, caught ostensibly in the present (i.e., Present) telling his or her story in the current American youth idiom and, though in the company of Whitman’s “Myself,” Ishmael, Hester Prynne, Huck, Maria Wyeth, Holden Caulfield, Sal Paradise, Rabbit Angstrom and all the others of their ilk, different enough to be a younger cousin visiting them for the first time and needing some time to get to know these earlier relatives of his.

Except for this difference, and, I think, one to ponder: Oscar Wao doesn’t want to light out for some new territory so much as he is drawn back to an old one, the Dominican Republic from which not he himself but his parents and grandparents came and by which they were formed. Stunned, is perhaps a better way to put it about his forbears and what the dark island made of them.

Apropos: I think Diaz, a most gifted writer, is a haunted one. He talks about “the tyranny of the Present,” namely, his sense that new Dominican-Americans, first-generation and beyond, not only do not know of their prehistory on that tragic island but nevertheless, transplanted to mean New Jersey streets of immigrants and their first generation children, in apparent innocence, are actually themselves (these young people) influenced by that dark, riotous, sunny, exotic, horrific island on subconscious levels; the voodoo tragedies of the island chase them down like an invisible devil-come-to-earth across the seas and years, though they don’t see the evil and may not even have heard of it; I say subconscious rather than “subconscious” because, I feel certain, Diaz, influenced by the “magic realism” of various Latin masterpiece novels (Borges, Llosa, et al.), is literally serious here, a mysterian or mystic in this regard. Diaz also believes, rightly, that especially and most crucially not nearly enough has been told and hence recalled specifically about the Trujillo dictatorship, the central reality here.

Yunior tells the story of Oscar Wao in an American idiom that is part mean streets of poor immigrants, part Spanish words prominent in the history of his novelistic Dominican families over here and back there, part literature major, part science fiction and fantasy, and part adolescent and juvenile speak of the 1980s. It’s a stew, and a valid one of which we should be aware.

Not to spoil the story: I’ll say only about the storyline that in the 1990s Oscar is fatally drawn back to the Dominican Republic for a second time because he finally finds requited love there with a woman, Ybon’. It seems to me that his first visit there, almost fatal, is pretty much–perhaps not entirely–accidental. Certainly Diaz wants us always to remember fuku’, that all-pervasive curse. Oscar is determined by fuku’. Is it merely a literary device? Probably not. Diaz is, I think, what used to be called a child of destiny; and certainly some of the greatest literature, from Homer on, has coursed along that theme.

But time will tell whether Diaz and his Oscar Wao prevail. I think the nerd-geek-streetwise language of Yunior, instructive for us who wish to keep abreast even though sometimes it might be off-putting, has severe limitations for getting inside characters’ heads, and hence makes writing a big American novel a challenge for Diaz, granted that to be sure one essential American cultural aspect of important novels is to speak a generation’s experience in their own and new colloquial. Further, there is a lot of exaggeration in the the novel that fits in with our showbiz times–the bloodiest fight, the meanest old matriarch, the baddest dictator, the toughest street fighters, the worst generation gap between parents and children, the most depraved secret police and so on. But after all, that’s entertainment. Scribblers are guilty in one or another guise of telling the Tall Tale on just about every page. It’s just part of making up stories.

Otherwise Diaz, as an exemplar of New Attitudes, worries me a bit. He leaves the impression that in spite of his large vision of the New World, taking his place perhaps in a line of New World storytellers imagining anew our vital and precious cultural and political and economic adventure, he focuses little on the fragility and indispensability of our Republic and its preservation. Maybe that will change as he leaves the mean streets of the immigrant further behind in an America hopefully of the continued mingling of different peoples, a wonderful overcoming of obstacles to our ideals. Now, though, in his being haunted by Trujillo, he seems resigned to Inevitable Badness, distracted to doom (there are several quiet references to nuclear Armageddon in which he shows a worrisome nonchalance), a doom which, if not visiting us tomorrow, is likely sooner than later.

But, I think, there is one especially compelling reason you should consider buying and reading this novel, aside from it’s being a short, fast way to the Absolutely New Thing in fiction today, the Current Moment in literature.

That reason is a 40-page section called, “Poor Abelard, 1944-1946.” It is so good that I can easily imagine it being excerpted some day and stood up on its own just as Dostoevsky’s chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor,” has been excerpted from The Brothers Karamazov. Diaz has said that he simply had to account for the Trujillo Dictatorship, for life in a police state. It has haunted him. To me, Diaz’s novel is really all about that history. This is the secret quest of the book. It’s a compulsive rediscovery. I am happy about that, because otherwise the foolishness of forgetting history, a growing concern about us, would be seen here. (The Feast of the Goat, a 1990s novel by Peruvian Largas, is a compelling novel about the Trujillo years, but cannot, in my view, measure up to Diaz’s short dramatization.) Though grim and frightening, “Abelard” is a shiny golden literary apple among the oranges in The Brief Happy Life of Oscar Wao.  It soars above the rest; it’s not entirely  part of the surrounding narrative (though, of course, it’s supposed to be). I have not read any more powerful drama of life in a police state. It is inspired. It is not typically gruesome, but it is telling. It is like nothing else in the novel. You won’t forget it. Using the modifier carefully, it’s simply great literature.