The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Reviewed by: Dustin Kenall © 2008
Penguin Books / PenguinAPutnam
US First Edition Trade Paperback
3356 Pages; $14
Publication Date: 09-02-02008
Date Reviewed: 09-29-2008
You've heard the phrase "larger than life." No one would use that term to describe Oscar Wao, or even the justly lauded novel bearing his name. Here is a man -- an overgrown boy more precisely -- whose very absence of ambition, bravado, adventure, and (yes) life defines him, like the negative space in the center of a doughnut. He is fat. He is nerdly. He is demure. He is a dreamer. He is who nobody wants to be, but who everyone fears they could become. He is also, at the end of his brief, wondrous life as vividly told by his best friend Yunior, a brave, gentle soul, whose actions reveal the humanity in the quietly steadfast. And that is almost enough to turn this book, a virtuoso first novel from Junot Diaz, into an instant classic. If (like its eponymous hero) it falls short of greatness, it nevertheless reminds us how small the rest of the world is.
The book begins, like Kill Bill (another genre smashup), auspiciously enough with a laughably serious sci-fi quote: "Of what import are brief, nameless lives . . . to Galactus??" Diaz follows with a high-brow excerpt from poet Derek Walcott: "Christ have mercy on all sleeping things! From that dog rotting down Wrightson Road to when I was a dog on these streets . . . I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me, and either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation." And that, more or less, previews the novel's tone: a teetering balance of high and low, comic book and Shakespeare, nerd-dom and Third-World politics. The theme of alienated adolescents fantasizing about mutant powers shares the same pages as that of immiserated, impotent minorities trapped in sub-tropical tyrannies. Diaz focuses on the Dominican Republic, the home of the Leons, expatriates whose ancestors were decimated by the brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo and who now live in (where else?) New Jersey, where the last male scion spends his days watching anime, reading fantasy, orchestrating role playing games, and writing an endless sci-fi epic.
Oscar, appellated Wao after his abiding love for Doctor Who, takes after another comic novel hero, Ignatius J. Reilly of 'A Confederacy of Dunces'. He is a man of girth and stunted sexuality sublimated into baroquely stilted verbiage, uttering salutations such as "Hail and well met," intoning gravely after a jog "I shall run no more," and wondering whether orcs "at a racial level" imagine themselves to look like elves. The narrative, voiced by a room mate from college, places him at the center of the story, but the novel circles through time, sketching a family history reaching into the post-war past of the Dominican Republic and the origins of the Leons' terrible fall. Thus, the viewpoint switches to Oscar's sister, then his mother, grandfather, then back again to "the Dominican Tolkien."
The family member's destinies purportedly trace a "fuku" or curse, stretching across time and space. The reader can observe Diaz striving for a flavor of magical realism: Isabel Allende meets Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But, it is one ingredient too many in this heady Caribbean brew. He supplies a couple coincidences and visions that lend themselves to an otherworldly interpretation, but the story's heart simply isn't in it. This is a character study; almost a short story collection of interrelated life vignettes. In its attention to detail and the sympathy afforded each character, the novel merits comparison with the intimate short work of Alice Munro. At the same time, Diaz can muster a prose so bleak as to be drawn from a Cormac McCarthy novel:
At one point they passed through one of those godforsaken blisters of a community that frequently afflict the arteries between the major cities, sad assemblages of shacks that seem to have been deposited in situ by a hurricane or other such calamity. The only visible commerce was a single goat carcass hanging unfetchingly from a rope, peeled down to its corded orange musculature, except for the skin of its face, which was still attached, like a funeral mask. He'd been skinned very recently, the flesh was still shivering under the shag of flies.
Unfortunately, the stories are so individually strong that they exert a centrifugal force on the central narrative, resulting in a less-than-dynamic pace and plot.
While the realism and lack of sustained ambiguity keep the atmosphere natural, the real wonder here is the narrator, a consummate verbal showman who recombines Dominican Spanish and American English into a stream of vibrant sound and sense, rhythm and rhyme. Like Arundhati Roy or early Salman Rushdie, Diaz explores the fringes of natural sound and language, delighting in a childlike play with the skin of thought. The conversational discourse employs copious use of footnotes, strewn at times in short bursts of thought confetti and at others in long, winding discourses on minor character backgrounds and Dominican history. Diaz demonstrates a technical mastery here that was rightly commended; his youthful, player-narrator could, without just the right balance, very easily have sounded like a puff-chested caricature of Caribbean machismo. In its studied effortlessness, the novel recalls A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the work of an author who also received a Toronto blessing of adulation with his debut, only later to be reprimanded for indulging in style at the expense of substance, and then even later redeemed by a "straight" story about an African child refugee.
This is a book that tugs at you, wears down your defenses. At once supremely silly and profoundly serious, it is a book running on fumes and adolescent adrenaline that keeps going because it never condescends to the reader and consistently sustains an aura of authenticity. In its preoccupation with the effluvia of marvelous pop fiction, it is also a love letter to the past 30 years of American culture before the Internet revolution and the i-pod generation, when our entertainments were a little less hi-tech and yet (by virtue of raw imagination) more fully realized than ever since.