The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (2007) Riverhead (2008) 335 pp
I failed at my first try to read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, not because the book wasn’t compelling but because I was trying to read it on a trial Sony Reader. Booooo! I had to quit after the first footnote. I finally got a copy of the physical book, and the result was much better: I finished the book. It was also better because I enjoyed the process. Just not as much as I hoped, so I need your help to sift through my feelings to see if I’m missing something or if it’s just an issue of taste.
I think with this book it’s good to start with some of the things that didn’t work for me. I like a unique voice. I like colloquialism when used well. I enjoy quirky narrators. All of this is present here. You get a lot of “Dude didn’t . . .” or “Homeboy didn’t . . .” On the one hand, this effectively sets up the incongruity of style (informal) and subject (serious). But I wasn’t sure if this had any effect on me other than being interesting at best (now, in wondering how it should be written, I realize that no voice can appropriately convey the horror that was Trujillo’s regime and the experience of diaspora, so why not set up a stark contrast?). At worst, the writing, in an attempt to provide me with original perspectives, served only to be strange, distracting me from what it should be emphasizing or clarifying. Here are two examples:
. . . but a Puerto Rican goth, that was as strange to us as a black Nazi.
I understand what is being said in this first one, and can even appreciate the effect of the analogy, but it just felt too loose for me. In other words, what is effective in this analogy (how almost impossible it is for a Puerto Rican to appear gothic) is greatly overshadowed by what is not (as far as I know, goths don’t harbor any feelings of goth supremacy targeting Puerto Ricans). And here was a very strange metaphor used to describe a beating:
It was like one of those nightmare eight-a.m. MLA panels: endless.
One can appreciate the use of this metaphor in its reverse — an eight-a.m. MLA panel when compared to a beating is exaggerated and cliché, but it keeps your focus on the MLA panel’s torture. But to compare a beating, especially one as severe as the one in the book, to an MLA meeting is exaggerated in the other direction, and I didn’t find that effective. This type of metaphor stands out to me and diminishes what I’m actually reading. This took the “incongruous subject and style” tool too far for me.
Overall, however, I enjoyed the voice in the book. I found the informal mix of Spanish and English to be compelling, usually drawing me into the story rather than pushing me out. (As for the Spanish: I imagine it could be very frustrating to read this book if you cannot read Spanish, but if you do look up the words, you’ll learn plenty of Spanish slang — and vulgarity. The book is very rich for having both.)
Now for the things I enjoyed (can’t go so far as to say “loved,” I’m afraid).
Well, that’s not entirely true, I can say I loved the book’s premise. The book begins by explaining a curse that has been affecting the fortunes of a Dominican family for the past couple of generations. We come to the nearly present day to meet the family’s latest member, Oscar, a second generation American living in Patterson, New Jersey, who can still feel the effects of the curse dropped on his family when Trujillo (“the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated”; see what I mean about the tone sometimes pushing one away from the brutality of the situation rather than bringing one closer to it? Then again, it’s an interesting (is that all?) rhetorical play) was ruling the Dominican Republic. The superb link of this curse to the experience of rule by an empire, by a dictator, followed by diaspora and disorientation, is brilliant. In one of the footnotes (a touch I thoroughly enjoyed), the narrator alludes to his own idea that the curse landed on this family long before Trujillo:
There are other beginnings certainly, better ones, to be sure — if you ask me I would have started when the Spaniards “discovered” the New World — or when the U.S. invaded Santo Domingo in 1916 — but if this was the opening that the de Léons chose for themselves, then who am I to question their historiography?
For this exploration of the immigration experience alone, the book is worth the read.
I also enjoyed the book because Díaz (like I just said about Roth) has an ability to use a wide lens (three generations, New Jersey and Dominican Republic, America and Trujillo) while still focusing on little intimacies of the characters. I would say that often he succeeds in making us feel for the characters because of the voice, and not despite it. For example, Oscar is a nerd of the worst ilk. No one likes him. He has all of the nerd paraphernalia, and he speaks to people as if they were from another planet. Díaz does a good job showing this in the informal, loose tone:
You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.
and the more formal tone:
His affection — that gravitational mass of love, fear, longing, desire, and lust that he directed at any and every girl in the vicinity without regard to looks, age, or availability — broke his heart each and every day.
and together these two tones create an effect where I deeply feel for Oscar. He is a study in personal humiliation, and the nerdy analogies, which help us get a taste of Oscar’s worldview, emphasize the quiet desperation.
Díaz also does this when he explores the origination of the curse and pushes the narrative back to, first, Oscar’s mother when she is arriving in New York City for the first time:
Her dreams are spare, lack the propulsion of a mission, her ambition is without traction. Her fiercest hope? That she will find a man. What she doesn’t yet know: the cold, the backbreaking drudgery of the factorías, the loneliness of Diaspora, that she will never again live in Santo Domingo, her own heart.
then, second, to Oscar’s grandfather after his false calumny charges:
The guards then proceeded to inform the other prisoners that Abelard was a homosexual and a Communist — That is untrue! Abelard protested — but who is going to listen to a gay communista?
I enjoyed the book throughout, but the profundity didn’t hit me until the last one hundred pages when the stories began to fall together and I knew enough about the past generation to understand its effects on the present one. This suggests a rereading is in store and that I’d find the rereading more enjoyable than I found this first reading. After all, going back and writing about what the book says makes me realize how powerful a gem it is.