Hey kids it's time to play "Literature in Limboland", where I join the din of book reviewers out there and do a little bullshit slingin' myself. Here's a little commentary on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Junot Diaz, Dominican homeboy of the switchblade prose.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Junot Diaz, Riverhead Books, 2007
Here is a tale of forbidden love, and what happens to those who partake of it. Set against a backdrop of Indio/Spanish island superstition, Catholicism, and Inquisition-era politics, juxtaposed against American commercial nothingness – the cursed de Leon family seeks comfort with mistresses, husbands and hookers. And they pay the Dominican way, in Junot Diaz high definition blood-splattered Technicolor.
I don’t know that there’s much else to be said about Junot Diaz’s hit story, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, since he took the literary world by storm and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. I’ll try and articulate what I believe to be Diaz’s formula for “success”, not in terms of writing a bestseller, but in terms of writing a grand and memorable novel.
This is what I see. Or read. Or hear.
“They say…that it was a dream drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fuku americanus, or more colloquially, fuku – generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World.” (P. 1)
I took it hook, line and sinker and only later when I looked it up and discovered that it’s the name of an Anime character, was I was struck by the magnitude of Diaz’s creation. I am struck again by the depth of imagination as he describes fuku as a “dream” somehow pulled “into Creation” from the earth’s innards through a deep ocean trench. Midway through the first paragraph and I am already slack jawed. By the end of the first chapter the contest between two supernatural powers is set: Fuku vs. Zafa, both products of Diaz’s formidable imagination.
Another critical opening ingredient: establish a character that wants something so bad they’ll do anything to get it. If a “fat sci-fi role-playing nerd wants to get laid or he’ll kill himself” plot isn’t enough, Diaz layers on Lola starved for motherly love and the story of the destroyed mother herself, Beli, who almost died trying to get what she wanted.
Then there are the themes that color the narrative: the whole sci-fi/fantasy element. While not an avid reader of the genre, there are a few books that I’ve read and reread: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Dune, The Foundation Trilogy (and later, Harry Potter). Each of them an epic of the struggle between good and evil, and characters/scenes/themes from each of them (except the Asimov trilogy) are used tirelessly as analogies throughout Oscar Wao. By attaching these stories to both Oscar and Yunior’s respective frames of reference, he infers a whole dimension of character without having to explain what it’s all about. Of course the reader is at a disadvantage if they are not familiar with Tolkien and Herbert, but that doesn’t mean they can’t follow. Oscar’s obsession with science fiction and fantasy is stereotypical for the fat kid, and the escape/withdrawal that the genre, along with the anime, (“Fuku”, it turns out, is an anime character), and the Dungeons and Dragons role play are the only comforts, along with food, that Oscar knows. Yunior, also an obvious fan the genre, is more attracted to the good vs. evil battle. Both like to enjoy a little smoky stimulant to the imagination that I feel overplays to the stereotype but Diaz is nothing if not honest about how these characters live.
But this story is about love, more specifically love WITH sex, juxtaposed against love WITHOUT sex (Oscar) and sex WITHOUT love (Yunior). The sad irony, or what I believe Oscar refers to as “the beauty” at the very end, is that, in this story our heroes fall in love with people that are not “available” and though our heroes are not the adulterers, they are equally guilty. In Beli’s case, her Gangster is married to Trullijo’s sister, La Fea. While the very end of the novel could be interpreted in any number of ways, what struck me was Oscar’s conclusion that something as simple as gentle, human kindness, a tender touch, a connection with another individual is what it’s “all about”.
“He couldn’t believe he’d had to wait for this so goddamn long. (Ybon was the one who suggested calling the wait something else. Yeah, like what? Maybe, she said, you could call it life.) He wrote: So this is what everybody’s always talking about! Diablo! If only I’d known. The beauty! The beauty!” (P. 335)
The reader can’t help but ask “the beauty of WHAT, Oscar?” He could have just have easily had said “the sad irony of it all”. The sad irony is that Oscar could’ve had, if he’d only known that is was so much more than sex, a life full of love.
What about the use of “postmodern” no-quote dialogue, mid-sentence line breaks, one-paragraph chapters, the somewhat random use of initial caps to give more meaning or weight to a specific word, and strange hybrid words from the world of sci-fi and Spanglish – all these characteristic lend the narrative a hip sensibility that embodies our narrator’s overall “groove”? ( I imagine that if the format was able to support graffiti, it would have been included as well.) It is exemplified here:
“LOOK AT THE PRINCESS
Before there was an American Story, before Paterson spread before Oscar and Lola like a dream, or the trumpets from the Island of our eviction had even sounded, there was their mother, Hypatia Belicia Cabral:
a girl so tall you leg bones ached just looking at her
so dark it was as if the Creatrix had, in her making, blinked
who, like her yet-to-be-born daughter, would come to exhibit a particularly Jersey malaise – the inextinguishable longing for elsewheres.” (p. 77)
Outside of the no-quote dialogue, this passage has it all: the random initial caps (American Story, Island), the homegrown words (Creatrix, elsewheres), the vertical list, the ultra-short chapter: these are elements that in other novels may seem contrived, but in Oscar Wao fit beautifully.
Witnesseth the power:
“It was obvious what was happening, but what could he do? There was no denying what he felt. Did he lose sleep? Yes. Did he lose important hours of concentration? Yes. Did he stop reading his Andre Norton books and even lose interest the final issue of Watchmen, which were unfolding in the illest way? Yes. Did he start borrowing his tio’s car for long rides to the Shore, parking at Sandy Hook, where his mom use to take them before she got sick, back when Oscar hadn’t been too fat, before she stopped going to the beach altogether? Yes. Did his youthful unrequited love cause him to lose weight? Unfortunately, this alone it did not provide…” (P. 45)
And in the end, it’s the voice of the narrator, Yunior, Diaz’ alter ego, that carries the day. Yunior: the street smart barrio dude who snagged a follow-up gig in Diaz’s composite work, This is How You Lose Her. From what I have read, it is Diaz’s street smart, mutant, familiar colloquialism that gets most of the attention. But Diaz doesn’t lay it out there as an oddity for our entertainment. Rather, when Yunior addresses us as “Nigger” and “Negro”, he’s feeling pretty confident that all of his readers are young and/or hip enough to know that it’s ok to use the “N” word among friends. So we’re hanging in Yunior’s back yard, passing a bowl and listening to him tell his story, stoned enough so that it doesn’t bother us when he drops the personal pronouns from of his sentences. Don’t even care.
Thus we let our guard down; we suspend our disbelief about fuku and zafa, the talking Mongoose, the magical wind in the cane, the miraculous survivals of the beat-downs to end all beat-downs, the men without faces, the blank notebook, the consummate culocrats and the one-track mind of Dominican males, and we can’t help but agree that Oscar Wao’s life was indeed wondrous.
Better yet it makes for a great story.