The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz. Riverhead. 352pp, $24.95.
At one point in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the narrator recounts the death of Dominican political crook Joaquín Balaguer. A direct descendant of the Trujillo regime—the genocidal dictatorship that held the country in a stranglehold until the United States ordered Trujillo’s execution in 1961—Balaguer rigged elections and continued the war on freedom that persisted after the dictator Trujillo’s death. He famously ordered the assassination of a renegade journalist and bragged that his memoirs would identify the actual murderer, but this was just another one of his many lies; the memoirs contained only the “blank page, a página en blanco” that he’d promised to fill.
The concept of the página en blanco recurs frequently in Diaz’s new novel, both in personal and political situations. As Oscar Wao hopscotches between the present day and Trujillo-era Santo Domingo, the characters undergo horrendous emotional and physical trauma in their homeland and then have the stories disappear from collective memory as they migrate to northern New Jersey. Balaguer’s story is a literal footnote in Diaz’s book, an example of the myriad storylines that the narrator relates in an attempt to fill the blank pages of the Dominican diaspora’s painful past.
Diaz’s narrative tone is the major revelation of Oscar Wao. His first book, Drown, contained nine semi-autobiographical stories set in the Dominican Republic, Diaz’s birthplace, and northern New Jersey, his adopted home. Written in spare language that mixed Spanish with English, Drown showed Diaz to be an evocative chronicler of immigrant life, but his stories’ power derived from their subject matter more than the prose. It took Diaz 11 years to write Oscar Wao, and it feels correspondingly more stylized and ambitious. Here Diaz narrates in a rapid-fire mixture of geeky culture references and urban slang; he writes convincingly from the perspectives of two women and recounts a multi-generational family story while relating a good bit of contemporary Dominican history. It is an impressive if occasionally overwritten performance that shows the significant growth of a major talent. The themes and motifs of Oscar Wao are reminiscent of many immigrant family sagas, but the novel is never less than engaging and thrilling.
Indeed, I can think of no other novel that contains so much brutality, torture, rape, murder, and suicide, yet nevertheless feels fun throughout. Diaz eschews the magical realism perhaps expected of a Hispanic writer and instead writes flowing descriptions of personal atrocity that resembles a combination of Whitman and Hubert Selby. Drown’s minimalism invited comparisons to Raymond Carver, but here Diaz has expanded his sentences and embraced a more visceral form of storytelling. The multiple narrators tell horrifying stories in loping, swinging sentences that are tethered together by commas and descriptive clauses. Here is the titular Oscar after flirting with a powerful Dominican’s girlfriend:
All I know is, it was the beating to end all beatings. It was the Götterdämmerung of beatdowns, a beatdown so cruel and relentless than even Camden, the city of the Ultimate Beatdown, would have been proud. . . . He shrieked, but it didn’t stop the beating; he begged, and that didn’t stop it, either; he blacked out, but that was no relief; the niggers kicked him in the nuts and perked him right up!
This beatdown to end all beatdowns arrives after 300 pages have been spent detailing the similarly heinous crimes inflicted on the Cabral family in generations past, quite distinct from Drown’s empty spaces and emotionally detached narrators.
Diaz writes that “Trujillo and company didn’t leave a paper trail, they didn’t share their German contemporaries’ lust for documentation.” The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is his attempt to rectify the situation, to fill the factual gaps in Dominican-American history with invented fictions. If there is a problem with the novel, it’s that the fictions themselves don’t add up to anything as profound or illuminating as the writing that carries them.
The novel mainly concerns Oscar Cabral, a pathetically obese boy who embodies the antithesis of Dominican masculinity. He is an outsider among outsiders, a virgin and intellectual amidst an immigrant Dominican culture in which sex is “the one thing . . . that never goes away.” Doomed to a life of perpetual embarrassment and humiliation, Oscar finds solace in the comforts of late 20th-century nerd-dom: comic books, sci-fi movies, anime, and fantasy novels, specifically those of J.R.R. Tolkien. He also writes epics in the Tolkien style and dresses up for Halloween as Dr. Who. His costume prompts one classmate to recognize his physical similarity to “that fat homo Oscar Wilde,” leading his friends to call Oscar “Oscar Wao.”
The Dominican boys’ accents lead to the title neologism, and this linguistic playfulness gets to the essence of Diaz’s greatest strength. The boys are assimilated enough to understand the European literary canon, yet their accents misshape the author’s name into something different, a word that simultaneously echoes the name of another genocidal dictator and an English-language expression for amazement. Diaz defines himself by his cultural dualism and yet he avoids the reductive tag of “ethnic” writer because of his deep understanding of language—not just Spanish and English, but the way that a diaspora’s combination of the two creates another reality altogether.
Oscar’s story is narrated by Yunior, a familiar voice from many of Drown’s stories, but the shy Dominican boy of the earlier work has, like his author, grown into a breathless and colloquial storyteller. Yunior was Oscar’s roommate at Rutgers, so his own stake in the proceedings becomes increasingly important as the book continues. He carries on a relationship with Oscar’s sister Lola, who narrates a chapter regarding her tempestuous relationship with her mother Beli. Then we’re treated to Beli’s own story, a heartbreaking and drawn-out section explaining the shame and abuse that brought her to America in the first place. The message throughout is that each story requires another to place it in context. Through these overlapping sections, Diaz suggests that immigrants from embattled countries commonly bring their reasons for leaving—fear, suspicion, discontent—with them to the new world. Thus the Dominican boys in New Jersey speak of Trujillo as if the murderer were still living.
Unfortunately, Oscar Wao is more interesting when actually set in Trujillo’s time. Roughly half the book details Beli and her father’s direct confrontations with the regime’s evils in Santo Domingo, and in these chapters Diaz balances the dual horrors of personal and political suffering so well that Oscar’s plight is rendered somewhat mundane.
Eventually Oscar’s misery sends him back to the homeland and his trip there ends as bloodily as his forebears’ experiences. He is ostensibly a victim of “fukú americanus,” or “The Curse of the New World,” a plague of bad luck unleashed on Hispaniola when Europeans first landed 500 years ago. At most, Oscar’s story shows how the fukú turned inward when immigration started—that instead of a foreign threat from abroad, the Dominican diaspora now faces its greatest threat from within. “No one, alas, more oppressive than the oppressed,” Yunior tells us.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao doesn’t offer a particularly new or enlightening view of the immigrant or postcolonial experiences, but this doesn’t detract from Diaz’s considerable aesthetic accomplishment. His prose is frequently exhilarating, and the sheer volume of intertextual references—Stephen King, Mario Vargas Llosa, X-Men, Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, and on—establishes a convincingly multilingual narrative voice to match the book’s themes and settings. It’s Diaz’s bursting, polyphonal attempt to fill the blank pages of his ethnic history.
John Lingan is a writer living in Baltimore, MD.
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