The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

March 19th, 2008 at 6:45 pm

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Junot Diaz has written a damn fine story here. It’s about a typical character that typically slips unmentioned and unregarded through the cracks of our typical existence. The protagonist of Diaz’s highly acclaimed novel is a fat, nerdy nobody, Oscar Wao. When offered pot, he replies, “I might partake. Just a little, though. I would not want to cloud my faculties.” See. Total dork.

But with some history of the Dominican Republic’s oppressive Trujillo regime as a backdrop and some very creative and imaginative dabbling in curses, sex, love, family, and violence, Diaz creates a remarkable story.

Diaz’s work is a Modern American Novel about the Modern American Experience, which is the Modern American Immigrant Experience. It is an experience that has been America’s legacy for some time now and will continue to be thanks to the talented likes of Junot Diaz.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is told with a fresh, colloquial familiarity that authentically captures and illuminates the world of Oscar Wao, a young Dominican living in New Jersey. Things are “real as shit,” people are described with, “them two was tight,” and one individual “was supposed to have Atomic Level G.” There is plenty of Spanish throughout, so a working conversational grasp of the language would certainly add to the experience. Otherwise keep WordReference open on a laptop nearby to translate things like, “And what about that supersonic culo that could tear words right out of niggers’ mouths, pull windows from out their motherfucking frames? A culo que jalaba mas que una junta de buey. Dios mio!”

Diaz even manages to sneak in some post-9/11 literary styling. Oscar’s sister’s hot friends are “all on the volleyball team together and tall and fit as colts and when they went for runs it was what the track team might have looked like in terrorist heaven.”

I started this book rolling my eyes, unimpressed. Here we go, I thought, a Dominican Catcher in the Rye about an unrealistically over-smart adolescent in a coming of age story trying to fuck girls saying things like, “I do not move so precipitously.”

But before my frustration was able to build too much, boom, the narrator changed from third person omniscient to the point of view of his sister. And then his Mom. And then one of his sister’s boyfriends. It actually all worked quite well.

There are plenty of pop culture references, mostly from the nerd-realm of Lord of the Rings, comic books, and graphic novels, but also The Simpsons, Proust, and our globe’s fucked up history. With all the references to comics and works like Watchmen, Brief Wondrous Life makes for a nice companion piece to Quantum Lyrics. There’s even a bit of nerd wisdom: “But you know exactly what kind of world we live in. It ain’t no fucking Middle-earth.”

There are also plenty of footnotes that work to give Diaz’s novel the guise of an actual, serious biography. If anything, it has strong parallels to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.

Unfortunately, Brief Wondrous Life is guilty of committing one of my biggest book pet peeves: characters in books who are aspiring writers. Is this all writers can write about? And if that’s not enough, when describing a particularly brutal beating, Diaz chooses to tell us via his narrator that, “It was like one of those nightmare eight-a.m. MLA panels: endless.” Isn’t it bad enough that Junot Diaz is a writer who was born in the Dominican Republic, raised in New Jersey, and teaches at M.I.T. writing about a boy who was born in the Dominican Republic and living in New Jersey and going to college?

Diaz’s novel is also annoyingly self-aware, apparatus apparent, if you will. The narrator says things like, “And now we arrive at the strangest part of our tale,” which really bugs me. I know this is a story, Junot. I got your novel in the fiction section.

I even read it.

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