The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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“You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.” 

I finally finished Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Aside from the fact that I thought the book was an incredible read, I also chose to review it because I follow Junot Diaz on Facebook (and you should too, he’s amazing), and he recently posted this link pointing out that ‘close reading’ of multicultural works increases racial literacy. So here it goes.

Diaz brilliantly and effortlessly blends Spanish, elvish, and Jersey slang to create a dynamic and interesting read that is a linguistic metaphor for the complexity and diversity of his characters. The story is of the Cabral family, part of the Dominican Diaspora to New Jersey as a result of the rise of the dictator, Trujillo. Reading Wao, I was immediately struck by the similarities to Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Like Garcia Marquez, Diaz tells the story of a whole country through the history of one family, with subtle notes of magical realism woven in. It’s impossible to understand the story of Oscar Wao without first knowing a little Dominican history. Diaz provides lengthy footnotes in order to fill the reader in:

“For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history: Trujillo, one of the twentieth century’s most infamous dictators, ruled the Dominican Republic between 1930 and 1961 with an implacable ruthless brutality. A portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulato who bleached his skin, wore platform shoes, and had a fondness for Napoleon-era haberdashery, Trujillo (also known as El Jefe, the Failed Cattle Thief and Fuckface) came to control nearly every aspect of the DR’s political, cultural, social, and economic life through a potent (and familiar) mixture of violence, intimidation, massacre, rape, co-optation and terror; treated the country like it was a plantation and he was the master. At first glance, he was just your prototypical Latin American caudillo, but his power was terminal in ways that few historians or writers have ever truly captured, or, I would argue, imagined. He was our Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator, a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up.”

I chose the above quote because it’s a perfect example of Diaz’s unique writing style. Some critiqued Diaz’s frequent use of Spanish throughout the novel, saying it distracted from the message of the book and interrupted the flow of text if you had to stop and look things up. Diaz responded to this criticism in the most Diaz-way possible, and better than I ever could by saying, “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they think we’re taking over.” 

The novel itself defies simple summary. The story is told mostly from the perspective of Yunior–a pseudo stand-in for Diaz himself, a sly Dominicano who can’t stay faithful to Oscar’s sister, Lola de Leon, who he is desperately in love with. But it shifts through time and place, and is told from multiple perspectives, including Beli Cabral, Oscar and Lola’s mother; Beli’s father, Abelard Cabral; La Inca, Oscar and Lola’s grandmother, and Lola herself. History has a way of repeating itself in the novel, another ode to Garcia Marquez, and characters are doomed to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors. Diaz attributes this to fuku, (It’s perfectly fine if you don’t believe in these “superstitions.” In fact, it’s better than fine—it’s perfect. Because no matter what you believe, fukú believes in you.)

“They say it came from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fukú americanus, or more colloquially, fukú – generally a curse or doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World.

No matter what its name or provenance, it is believed that the arrival of Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed fukú on the world, and we’ve all been in the shit ever since.”

Wao can be dark at times. Stories of atrocities committed by the Trujillato are ever the more terrible because they are true. Oscar’s depression and the Dominican diaspora are always in the back of the reader’s mind. In spite of this, Wao is really funny at times. Diaz weaves in sci-fi references to maximize comedic effect: “Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to.”

One of my favorite parts of Wao, is that it taught me more about Dominican history than I ever learned in any history class. Sadly, I don’t think I received even the “mandatory two seconds” of Dominican history in any of my history classes. The novel was a stark reminder of how much our public education lacks in telling history when it’s inconvenient to the narrative of American exceptionalism. The history of Hispanola is fascinating, complex, and crucial to the understanding of the harms of colonization and imperialism. In summary, Yunior says it best, “No one, alas, more oppressive than the oppressed.”

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