Yes, I hear you, I get it: I’m several years behind in joining the clamor of appreciation for Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel – his only novel (so far) and the slow-coming follow-up to the magnetic story collection, Drown. All the same, reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao feels like a discovery. This is a wild, soaring, stylized, hilarious, heartbreaking, and highly-voiced novel, one that indulges in tale-telling and, in the ample footnotes, passionate essaying.
Our Oscar Wao is the son of a Dominican immigrant living in New Jersey, an overweight kid who is obsessed with sci-fi and comic books and role-playing; he is a “ghetto nerd” who dreams of being the Dominican Tolkien and who finds he doesn’t fit in anywhere – not with other geeks about town and not with the Dominican community, which heralds the reputation of its virile, macho men. The fantasy worlds that Oscar lives in is juxtaposed with the chaotic, couldn’t-make-it-up trajectory of the Dominican Republic in the twentieth century – dominated by diaspora and the capricious, nonsensical dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo -- as well as the magicked moments left in the wake.
One of the great sources of profluence in the novel is that we actually don’t spend a great deal of time with Oscar. The text moves among his tough-minded sister, his astonishing mother, his sister’s lustful lover, the grandfather of his that was tortured under Trujillo at mid-century. The voice of the novel shifts from close-third person to first-person, choosing different characters to embody. Oscar, notably, never speaks to us in the first-person; it is fascinating to see that he seems to exist in the margins not only of his communities, but in the book that bears his name. There is one narrator who gives cohesion to the book of many voices, one that we return to, one that only gradually takes shape, one whose identity we suspect but who, finally, is affirmed only late in the novel – at a gentle moment that feels like an exhale.
In a move that creates a linguistical hybrid of the text, the language of the novel is heavily marked by Spanish, by dialects unique to New Jersey in the 1980s and Santo Domingo at mid-century, by idioms, by the voices of fantastical tales and by political essay-writing. Besides bringing great buoyancy to the text, this textual mixing mirrors both the Dominican diaspora experience and Oscar's (seemingly) opposed identities. There is one foot in either place, and no easy categorization. The language of the novel might have felt unwieldy after a few hundred pages, but because of its tie to the plot that it contains, the hybrid language actually brought cohesion to the book.
On a wholly different note: I was surprised when the novel elevated the urgency of Oscar’s desire to lose his virginity. An obsession with having sex for the first time is the driving force of untold teen film comedies, and it seemed to grate against what I expected from a thoughtful, joyous Pulitzer-winning novel by an author I admire. I set that discomfort aside, though, as I read the book – and was pleased to discover, just pages from the very ending, that Díaz resolves this virginity plot trajectory in a simple, beautifully nuanced way -- if it was somewhat disjointed with what came before, perhaps this hard-to-believe dissonance too connects with the novel's interest in fantasy, in curses, in the truth of the unbelievable. My tension about the weight given to Oscar's sexual frustrations was ultimately disassembled into a grateful, somewhat awed catharsis -- which is in turn a neat parallel.
After I finished the novel, I found out that an excerpt of Díaz's novel appeared in The New Yorker, with the Hernandez brothers contributing uncredited illustrations. The novel makes much of references to the brothers’ Love and Rockets saga (which, having experienced it for the first time just recently, I delighted in). But even aside from that, the match seems perfect. Like Love and Rockets, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao takes bold risks -- not just in style, but in its willingness to tell stories of murder, torture, suicide attempts, sex, abuse, fear, rape, runaways, immigrants not just in a vague haunting implication sort of way, but facing it directly. And it does this not with the jaw firmly clenched -- it comes among stories of humor and school, comic books and flirtation, rescue and magic. It takes courage to take on so many tones of the human experience. And we are lucky readers indeed to find them tethered here in Díaz's sweeping, multi-lingual sentences.