The OF Blog: Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everybody's always going on about - he wasn't no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock.

And except for one period early in his life, dude never had much luck with the females (how very un-Dominican of him).

He was seven then.

In those blessed days of his youth, Oscar was something of a Casanova. One of those preschool loverboys who was always trying to kiss the girls, always coming up behind them during a merengue and giving them the pelvic pump, the first nigger to learn the perrito and the one who danced it any chance he got. Because in those days he was (still) a "normal" Dominican boy raised in a "typical" Dominican family, his nascent pimp-liness was encouraged by blood and friends alike. During parties - and there were many parties in those long-ago seventies days, before Washington Heights was Washington Heights, before the Bergenline became a straight shot of Spanish for almost a hundred blocks - some drunk relative inevitably pushed Oscar onto some little girl and then everyone would howl as boy and girl approximated the hip-motism of the adults. (pp. 11-12)
This passage serves to illustrate not just Junot Díaz's writing style in this, his first novel, but it hints at the character at the heart of this novel that touches upon so many societal fault lines that have existed in the United States for decades. Oscar, one of the three main characters from a family "cursed" ever since the dying days of the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic in 1961, is a big fat nerd. Not only that, this wannabe-Casanova is seen waxing poetic over his Star Trek novel collection, arguing about the merits of certain fantasy or SF authors compared to others, and he quotes all sorts of the geekiest movies and books to the annoyance of those around him.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
explores the SF geek subculture of the 80s and early 90s with a lot of wit and warmth. Through the lives of Oscar, his rebellious older sister Lola, and their stunningly-beautiful mother Belicia, as narrated by a family friend, Yunior (who appears as a character in Díaz's 1997 story collection, Drown), the reader may find her or himself remembering the tensions growing up between the expected "cool" adolescent subculture and the "geeky, dorkish" other side. Díaz shows not only a great familiarity with the touchstones of each subculture (Oscar's Yoda quotes and greetings to Yunior are simultaneously hilarious and awkward, as one might expect when someone is being a bit too dorky for his/her own good), but Oscar's growing alienation from his family and friends ties into the curse element of the "fukú" that firmly centers the story around the Dominican heritage of its current generation of sufferers.

This story progresses in such a way that just when one begins to think that Belicia is a bitch and a horrid mom to Oscar and Lola, we begin to see what horrid shit she had to endure at the hands of the Trujillistas. Díaz's use of Spanglish is done to great effect and even if one is largely monolingual, the gist of the terms is readily apparent and it contributes to a story that feels rhythmic as much as it becomes tragic. The ending comes full-circle to the piece that I quote and by the time the last few pages are read, the effect is devastating.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao simply is a well-told novel that utilizes SF references to showcase a character that does not as much "escape" from the shittiness of his upbringing in the Dominican Republic and Patterson, New Jersey as much as it underscores the various ways that people, especially teens in their most awkward years, cope with the world around them. In the case of Oscar, it begins as a humorous but yet sympathetic portrayal of his youth and it concludes in such a way as to make it feel like a great tragedy has been narrated to the reader. It is a novel that in many ways is the Latino "answer" to Jonathan Lethem's excellent The Fortress of Solitude (it too being set in a part of the greater NYC metro area in the 70s and 80s). Highly recommended for all readers.

Publication Date: September 6, 2007 (US), Hardcover.

Publisher: Riverhead Books (Penguin group)

1 comment:

Robert said...

Larry, hey, I know that this has nothing to do with the post, but just wanted to say Happy New Year :) Hope you enjoyed the holidays! I also wanted to say what an excellent job you did with all of the 'Best Of' articles. I had a great time catching up with everything and can't wait to see what you have in store for 2008. Should be good :)

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