Junot Díaz — The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

March 25, 2009 at 12:00 pm 5 comments

I tend to think that novels shouldn’t read like short story anthologies. But The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008) does read like a short story anthology, and is still a great novel. Junot Díaz packs stories from three generations into his Dominican family saga, united by a connection to the brief and wondrous life of a second-generation Dominican immigrant in America, Oscar “Wao” de Léon.

In the mix are tales of the nerdy and hapless Oscar himself, of his granddad Abelard, of his mother Belí and of his sister Lola; they stretch from 1940s Santo Domingo to 1990s New Jersey. But the hopping around in space, time and perspective doesn’t make for a disjointed read. On the contrary, the book builds up a rattling momentum. The more you learn about this family, the more you want to know where fate will take it next.


Oscar Wao is warm, genuine and life-affirming, a book populated by likeable dreamers struggling against the odds, each rendered by Díaz with humour and vitality. It’s a Pulitzer-winner that’s already been praised to the hilt, and rightly so — so I won’t get lost in superlatives here. I’m just going to sum up some of Oscar Wao‘s most memorable elements.

1. The spanglish

Listen palomo: you have to grab a muchacha, y metéselo. That will take care of everything. Start with a fea. Coje that fea y metéselo!

Díaz’s prose is peppered with Spanish vernacular — “Oscar Wao”, Oscar’s college nickname, is “Oscar Wilde” with a Hispanic accent. Sometimes it’s pretty hard going for a poor monolingual like me. I felt like an interloper, sneaking in on a story meant for a Hispanic audience, sometimes only getting the gist of the dialogue. But somehow the result is an experience far richer and more authentic than it would’ve been had everything been implausibly rendered in perfect English. This is how the characters speak and think, and giving the narration this true-to-life patois, though a bold move, was the right thing to do.

2. The magic

What can I tell you? In Santo Domingo a story is not a story unless it casts a supernatural shadow.

Oscar Wao is full of talk of curses and countercurses, men without faces, and the strange black mongoose of fate. It’s almost magical realism, only that, for Oscar, the only mythology that really counts is that of the comic books and fantasy novels he reads (and writes) obsessively. So our third-person narrator quotes wisdom from JRR Tolkien, Frank Herbert and Alan Moore, and mixes up Domican folk mythology with references to Dune, Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. It’s a wonderful cross-cultural cocktail.

Is Díaz mocking the magical realists here? I don’t think so. He’s showing that our allegedly “disenchanted” modern pop culture can imbue things with as much fantastical significance as any ancient superstitition. Oscar’s interpretation of the past is inflected with the fantasy tropes of his American-nerd present.


3. The politics

There was such fear, the sickening blood-draining fear of a drawn pistol, of waking up to find a man standing over your bed, but held, a note sustained indefinitely.

Oscar Wao tells of a people crushed under the yoke of Rafael Trujillo, one of the twentieth century’s cruellest dictators — and that’s saying something. Like Toni Morrison (Beloved, 1987) and Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian, 1985), Díaz confronts one of the grimmest episodes in the story of the New World.

How do you write about something like that? How do you touch wounds so deep in the Dominican psyche? Díaz tackles the issue almost head-on. He doesn’t merely hint at or symbolize the murderous, state-sanctioned violence of those times. He doesn’t shy away from the big picture — he exposes you to the gritty details of Trujillo’s thuggery. He remembers the genocides, the denunciations, the Secret Police and the Kafkaesque surprise arrests, he remembers who was murdered, when and how.

So why “almost” head-on? Because most of the gore is put into footnotes. Yes, footnotes, in a novel. A brave and clever move, because, as Tolstoy saw, grand historical arcs should be secondary to the lives and deaths of real human beings. Díaz remembers Trujillo, often comparing him to Sauron — but he demotes him. Trujillo doesn’t deserve to be a protagonist in this story, so his evil deeds are shoved outside the main text.

The end product is not a political novel. It’s a novel set against a backdrop of brutality and oppression that casts a long shadow, but in which centre stage is reserved for a handful of human beings driven only by the hope of love, acceptance and survival.


Entry filed under: Book Reviews, Diaz Junot.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Max Cairnduff  |  June 29, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    Hm, this review has tempted me more than many others actually, I like how you just bring out three elements, rather than trying to analyse the whole novel which of course has already been subject to extensive review and criticism elsewhere.

    Your comments on the footnotes are particularly interesting, I’ve seen lots comment on whether they liked them or not, but not many people have discussed why they might be there.

  • 2. Jonathan Birch  |  June 29, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    Thanks Max. Oscar Wao is certainly worth a go in my view. It’s one of the most memorable and likeable new books I’ve read in a long time.

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