My first year of graduate school at NYU I saw a number of people in Washington Square Park and the coffee shops around campus reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Reading an average of four books a week for class and research related to my thesis, I didn’t even consider picking it up. When my friend Mary, a literature professor at FAU, suggested it to me following a meeting of our writing group as I’d been complaining that I’m disconnected from modern trends in literature as I focus a lot on older and niche works, I decided to purchase it.
How much did I like it? Well, I ended up reading it in three or four sittings. Lest this seem a review of unadulterated praise let me open with the admission that
I have a certain amount of mixed feelings for the book. While I love the manner in which Diaz brings the historical into the narrative such that the reader gets a short history of the Dominican Republic and I find it stylistically compelling, I don’t particularly connect with Oscar in the manner in which the narrator seems to expect me to. Lest this seem a petty criticism, dear reader, let me develop it and then gush on what I do like just so that I can end on a positive note as I do like the book very much.
Oscar’s character, the quintessential overweigh, ugly science fiction reading, Dungeons & Dragons playing, comic-book reading nerd that repeatedly finds himself unable to catch or keep the attention of the women for whom he falls for is – well – kinda gross. Lest I be accused of being unfair, let me convey this small section so that it be understood that this is also the perspective of the eponymous character of the novel we are talking about. In the opening of the book the following exchange happens between him and his sister.
“Oscar, Lola warned repeatedly, you’re going to die a virgin unless you start changing.
Don’t you think I know that? Another five years of this and I’ll be you somebody tried to name a church after me.
Cut the hair, lose the glasses, exercise. And get rid of those porn magazines. They’re disgusting, they bother Mami, and they’ll never get you a date.
Sound counsel that in the end he did not adopt. He tried a couple of times to exercise, leg lifts, sit-ups, walks around the block in the early morning, that sort of thing, but he would notice how everybody else had a girl but him and would despair, plunging right back into eating, Penthouses, designing dungeons, and self-pity.”
Now, this may seem trite, but from this perspective I believe that Oscar Wao’s brief and wondrous life and his eventual death come to take on a different perspective from the one that Junior, the narrator, seems to give it. More specifically, during part of the plot referred to as The Final Voyage I found Wao’s behavior to be creepily reminiscent of the obsessive gamers that harass women. In the greater framework of the novel, i.e. the incidents the happen before it and the aesthetic organization of feeling that it imbues, this is supposed to be seen as romantic. Revolutionary even, for Wao stand’s up to a policeman of a nation that we are repeatedly reminded was once a predatory sex playground for the dictator Trujillo.
Lest I seem to be imposing my own values onto the narrative and denigrating it because of that let me clarify that I think stylistically it is wonderful, fabulous, magnifico, muy bueno. Unlike Diaz’s writings in Drown and This is How You Lose Her – the inclusion of Spanish and Spanglish works. I’ve read a few reviews that say that it doesn’t add much to it but I disagree. It’s not just this that I like, however, it’s the pacing of the lines. The jump cuts to different scenes. The crass street-talk with the same rhythmic patterns of boricuas that I’ve dated. The incredible number of pup culture, science fiction, and historical references – the last of which I will talk about later. All of this combines to form an incredibly compelling medium that even though I’m somewhat alienated from Oscar pulled me in and would not let me put it down. After reading this I understand why Diaz won a genius grant. It’s fucking brilliant. I don’t think this material would be as compelling by itself, which brings me to my next point.
One of the components of the book that I also admired is what I alluded to earlier – the inclusion of the Historical Real into the novel. I capitalize this as such as the historical events described in the book have a real effect on the characters in it and as it allows for the reader to get insight into another epoch and culture when they might not otherwise have the interest to. While I would say that the emphasis on this in Wao is not as central as In The Time of the Butterfly’s by Julia Alvarez or The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, I still appreciate it as it was these works along with One Hundred Years of Solitude that first garnered my interest in Latin American/Caribbean history and literature. In Oscar’s world the family, indeed the whole culture, is infected with the historical traumas of U.S. supported anti-communist strong men that, whether they recognize it or not, affects them all in a number of ways. Not to say that there is an excessive fixation about limning this, but that it is ever in the background is something that I appreciated. All that said, as you can tell, I greatly enjoyedThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and look forward to reading Diaz’s other works.