Thursday, April 5, 2012

Literary Bite: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

As I packed for Colorado, I realized that I’d read every single book in my apartment. What’s a girl to do??? I briefly considered a late-night run to Kramer’s, but then decided to hold out and borrow a book from SpeedyKate’s parents when we arrived in Denver. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz was an excellent choice.

The story takes place in the Dominican Republic and New Jersey, and follows the life of Oscar, an overweight Dominican-American “ghetto nerd” and his family. The novel is a nice mix of and coming-of-age melodrama, complex family history and dynamics, and historical fiction (how much do you know about the Dominican Republic and it’s dictator?).

It’s a “multigenerational immigrant family chronicle that dabbles in tropical magic realism, punk-rock feminism, hip-hop machismo, post-postmodern pyrotechnics and enough polymorphous multiculturalism to fill up an Introduction to Cultural Studies syllabus” (NYT).

Oscar is obsessed with comic books and science fiction, and his own story is told like the genres he loves. He’s on a quest for true love, but constantly thwarted by “fuku,” the curse put on the Dominicans by Columbus. The Dominican Republic’s folklore, politics, and history, is woven into the narrative and cast like science fiction.  The prose has a nice fast-reading lyrical rhythm in the voices of Yunior, Oscar’s roommate and only friend, and his sister Lola.
  • Oscar’s sister Lola (who I’d start dating in college) was a lot more practical. She was one of those tough Jersey Latinas, a girl soccer star who drove her own car, had her own checkbook, called men bitches, and would eat a fat cat in front of you without a speck of vergüenza. When she was in sixth grade, she was raped by an older acquaintance, and surviving that urikán of pain, judgment, and bochinche had stripped her of cowardice. She’d say anything to anybody and she cut her hair short (anathema to late-eighties Jersey Dominicans) partially, I think, because when she’d been little her family had let it grow down past her ass—a source of pride, something I’m sure her rapist noticed and admired.
(One warning though, if you don’t speak any Spanish this book can be tricky – just assume that most Spanish words are something dirty and you should be good to go.)

The even better storyline is that of Oscar’s mother, Beli, a Dominican beauty who becomes entangled with a criminal and eventually flees to America. My only complaint is that I wish Beli’s story were more complete. Díaz covers Beli’s youth in DR, and then see her as an immigrant matriarch in New Jersey, but the in-between is hazy and lost.

Another thing that I loved about this book were the copious LOTR references. Díaz casts Dominican Dictator Trujillo as Sauron, and the entire country as a weird Middle Earth. Seriously, there’s probably a LORT reference every third page.
  • At the end of The Return of the King, Sauron's evil was taken away by "a great wind" and neatly "blown away," with no lasting consequences to our heroes; but Trujillo was too powerful, too toxic a radiation to be dispelled so easily. Even after his death his evil lingered. 
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is definitely worth the read. If you want a preview, part of it is published in The New Yorker.