I might be late to the party, seeing how Junot Diaz has already won a fucking Pulitzer for this shit, but this does not prevent me from saying that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a very good, if flawed book. But of course, this is only a platitude: all books are flawed. What I really mean is that this book is flawed enough to prevent it from becoming an undisputed, timeless masterpiece, Pulitzer or not.
But first, let’s just get its style out of the way. Make no mistake, the book has all the telltale signs of a po-mo novel: multiple narrators, intertwining narratives that span across multiple time periods and multiple locations, a mixture of high and low (Proust with Tolkien, just to name a few), copious footnotes that obviously break the literary fourth-wall (obviously an homage to or rip off from David Foster Wallace), and sudden bursts of Spanish/Spanglish street lingo that goes untranslated. To top it off, the book’s central conceit takes a blatant page from the magical realism playbook, as if magical realism is not already cliched enough in Latin American literature!
Somehow, Diaz manages to transcend what might be an otherwise hocus-pocus, hodge-podge “ethnic” story of immigration and creates something that is emotionally resonant, filled with rich characters, all written in a voice that rings true. I want to use Diaz’s narrative voice as an entry to discuss the merits of the book. Simply put, I consider Diaz’s narrative voice to be the best thing about the book, for both its formal and emotional qualities.
One thing I really admired about the book is how Diaz manages to slowly transform the narrator to an actual character named Yunior. In the beginning, it’s unclear who is narrating? Slowly but surely, Diaz makes his narrator emerge from the shadows and reveals his role in the story. This is a very rewarding part of the reading for me, because the narrator goes from a disembodied voice to an actual person, and Diaz manages this transition pretty gracefully.
Second, the narrative voice itself is just so damn fun to listen to! Yunior speaks in a mix of street-wise lingo (a mixture of Spanish and English) and didacticism (it turns out all the footnotes are his). He drops nerd/geek references all over the place (witnesses the references to the Lord of the Rings, Fantastic Four, and anime), but does so in a way that illuminates those very references become the lens with which he views the events happening around him. In his voice one can hear a mixture of both youthful bravado and geeky erudition, of sexual swagger and romantic insecurities.
In a sense, the book is about Yunior’s coming of age, and Oscar’s life story (and Yunior’s participation in it) only provides the impetus for Yunior’s own transformation. In fact, out of all the major characters in the book, Oscar proves, at least in my opinion, the least interesting, mainly because Diaz’s portrayal of him seems so one-dimensional at times. Once Oscar becomes the obese ghetto-nerd with girl troubles, he basically stays that way until the end, when Diaz tries to completely change his character. But this ring false to me, and it constitutes what I think is probably the biggest flaw of the book.
Yet if Oscar turns out to be an uninteresting character, Diaz does a wonderful job of providing the family history that spans three generations. The descriptions of Oscar’s grandparents and his mother’s life in the Dominican Republic during the reign of Trujillo provides the substance of the book’s conceit, namely, that Oscar’s family is cursed. I was much more interested in the stories of these people than Oscar himself, and here Diaz does not disappoint. His writing for this part of the book is poignant, although it does occasionally slip into the whole “look at how exotic a Latin American country is”-itis.
Which brings me back to where I started: the central conceit of the book. Of course one should not interpret it literally (of course there is no curse!). But all Diaz is trying to say is that a person, especially an immigrant, can never really completely escape the history of his family, and by extension, of his motherland. The whole “curse” conceit is merely a fantastic way of re-stating this simple truth. In the end, the book, to me at least, is about the immigrant and his relationship to his homeland and its history: no matter where you are or how long you have been gone, the homeland calls. And if you can never completely be free of your homeland, you are also not completely free from its history, no matter how dark and brutal it is.
All in all, a tremendously enjoyable book: I bought the book at 1 in the afternoon, and by 12AM midnight, I finished it. I can’t remember the last time I was that hooked to a single book. So while it might not be a masterpiece, it is no slouch either.