Junot Díaz is in his forties; he was born in the Dominican Republic but has lived in NY/NJ for longer than anyone cares to remember, and his short fiction has appeared in a number of journals, including, for instance, The New Yorker, for over ten years. Which is roughly how long his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, has taken to get published. Now that it is out in the public, it has received accolades from all corners of the literary establishment, has enjoyed worldwide success and has merited him the Pulitzer Prize, no less. Such is the world of publishing.
Personal details aside, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an enormously ambitious, mostly successful attempt to tell from within the saga of XX century Dominican history, from Trujillo’s dictatorship to the ensuing migration en masse to the USA, with poverty and superstition (‘I mean, shit, what Latino family doesn’t think it’s cursed’) paving every step of the way.
Through the adoption of a contemporary persona (the return of his Yunior, the first generation American/Dominican protagonist of his first collection of short stories, Drown), Diaz appeals to the modern reader while depicting a detailed, accurate and convincing picture of the suburban lifestyle of an alienated community in New Jersey. Yunior’s perspective allows Díaz to identify his narrator with most Dominicans while still achieving the distance necessary to tell the story of a dysfunctional family from the point of view of a sympathetic outsider.
However, Díaz’s narrative technique is far from conventional, constantly engaging in the shifts of perspective and conjugations that characterize postmodern literature. Added to Yunior’s third person account of the facts, Díaz expertly adopts the voice of Oscar’s sister, Lola, to take us through her own temporary journey of regressed migration (from Paterson to the Dominican Republic, via an unfortunate stop in Wildwood).
And yet, the novel’s most engaging moments come when Díaz gives free rein to yet another third person narrator, this one quite different to Yunior’s voice, which imbues itself in the often horrific detail of Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic with calculated emotion and impressive erudition. For this purpose, Díaz plays with the visual format throughout the book, including a vast number of footnotes that allow him to delve into the intricacies of genre fiction (sci-fi) and Dominican history.
Emphatically, Diaz puts across the point that if once upon a time the question of racial issues in America revolved around the possibility of breaking the duplicity of being ‘black’ and ‘American’, this question is now further complicated by issues of identity within the minority groups themselves – can you be ‘black’ and ‘Latino’ and ‘American’?; can there be a ‘Latino’ identity when Dominicans won’t speak to Puerto Ricans won’t speak to… you get the drift.
But, don’t get me wrong, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is not a history book, or a sociological study. On the contrary, it is a gripping work of fiction that escapes the danger of becoming an epic drama or a chronicle by expertly combining an impressive knowledge of sci-fi tradition, a complete control of several overlapping narrative voices, an exhaustive catalogue of cultural landmarks from the 80’s and the 90’s and the wonderful usage of a fluid Spanglish dialect (Wao itself being a Spanish corruption of Oscar’s nickname, Oscar Wilde) that simultaneously fascinates and alienates the uninstructed reader – much in the same way that the mumbo-jumbo of a magic ritual appeals to something other than reason.
Indeed, magic plays a central role in the series of tragic events that shapes the lives of three generations of Oscar ‘Wao’ de Leon’s relatives (and the protagonist’s name must be a tribute to the great Venezuelan salsa singer and all the ‘waos’ he must have inspired over the years). For Díaz, the only possible explanation to the miseries of the Cabral/de León family (and the rest of the Dominican people) is the presence of a capricious curse, a fukú (some sort of cosmic fuck you) lurking around the corner, waiting to exert its powers. It is in the use of this somewhat laughable artifice that Díaz makes this a uniquely West Indian, consciously Antillean tale. At the same time, he manages to fit this bundle of idiosyncrasies inside a bag that is full enough of shared experiences –from Moby Dick to Derek Walcott, from Ultraman to the Fantastic Four – for the layman from Chicago, or indeed, from London, to relate to it.
If there is one thing to say against The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao it is, perhaps, that Díaz’s fluid, dynamic style (full of flair, if you know what I mean) allows him to get away with too much. In the most unlikely of recipes Díaz combines a crash course on modern Dominican history with an exhaustive list of sci-fi titles (books, comics, films, TV-series) in a tale shaped by cars (‘Hard to overstate the role cars play in our narrative’) and by the close rapport built between the reader and, in particular, the omniscient, third-person narrator, whose asides hint at lessons learnt from Rushdie and co.
But in the end, Díaz’s final trick might prove to be one manipulation too many. While earlier in the narrative he has steered the reader away from fairy-tale fantasy (‘Did you really think some street punk from Sanamá was going to reach the upper echelons of the Trujillato on hard work alone? Negro, please –this ain’t a comic book’), he comes back with a strained device that feels awkward from the moment he introduces it. Díaz acknowledges so much, and includes a riposte to the critics who will accuse him of writing ‘Suburban Tropical’ for including a ‘puta’ in the story, who is not ‘an underage snort-addicted mess.’ The problem is that this whore is not just another character, but Díaz’s ticket to a viable conclusion. Hence, when he offers the somewhat trite option (‘If blue pill, continue. If red pill, return to the Matrix’) the reader is far too committed (after all, this is page 296) to do anything but read to the end.
Which is not to say that the read is spoiled. On the contrary, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao remains a deeply entertaining, thoughtful and accomplished piece of writing with artistic and social value. Indeed, if in his fiction Junot Díaz highlights the problem of the multiplicity of identity (a problem, by the by, which is not only relevant to the American reality), the success of this book also demonstrates the extent to which empathy is possible across different cultures and social backgrounds. In his use of language, his selection of traditions, his construction of the cultural edifice that holds his novel together, Díaz has proven the Caribbean to be the ideal melting pot to concoct a highly diverse but eminently appealing society.
ABRIDGED VERSION PUBLISHED IN THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF THE DAILY HERALD, SINT MAARTEN, DECEMBER 6, 2008.