Thursday, April 11, 2013

Mesmerized by The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
By Junot Diaz
Riverhead, 2007
I came for the comic book references. I can be shallow like that.

Junot Diaz's debut novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is absolutely louse with absolutely perfect geeky references to superhero comics and alternative comics and science fiction & fantasy novels and role playing games and more and more and more. This novel was speaking my language, a language steeped in knowledge of classic Marvel and Love & Rockets and The Lord of the Rings (and more and more and more). I'm a cheap date and I was hooked from page one. Seduced by my culture of geekery, I ended up getting absorbed into the mesmerizing narrative of Dominican culture and history and the immigrant experience of one very remarkable family. And geekery.

(The novel was also speaking Spanglish, and my Spanish ain't that great, but context is everything and it's easy enough to follow.)

It's the 1980s, teenager Oscar de Leon (Wao is a nick-name making fun of his literary predilections) is the son of a hard working immigrant, overweight, obsessed with anime and comics and gaming, helplessly out of touch, taken to verbal affectations, and terrible with the ladies. Really, really terrible. Which isn't easy on any day but Oscar is Dominican and certain things are expected of Dominican men. He doesn't have (m)any friends, lives with his cancer-stricken mother and his devoted but occasionally wayward sister, Lola. Our narrator (for most of the novel) is a version of the Author himself, Yunior as he prefers to be called, who finds himself woven into the story through his relationship with Lola. Yunior, a Dominican player's player, would end up Oscar's roommate in college, attempting to change Oscar's backwards women-repelling ways. But there are more powerful forces at work than just Oscar's hopeless awkwardness.

There is a powerful Fuku at work.

Diaz introduces us to the deeply, uniquely Dominican concept of fuku right from the start, the idea of a powerful curse that can travel generations. The fuku isn't a given, this isn't a supernatural thriller or anything of the sort. But it's clear Dominicans believe in this and it has a profound pull on their lives. And this is a novel about Dominican culture and history as much as it is a chronicle of one lonely geek in Paterson, New Jersey.

The novel bounds around generations and is steeped deeply in the Dominican experience, both on the island and in the diaspora. So much of being Dominican is colored by the experience of living underneath the iron fist of the country's brutal, genocidal dictator of more than 30 years, Rafael Trujillo. The grip Trujillo had on the soul of the nation and it's people cannot be understated, and everything that happens in Oscar Wao can be traced back to his brutal regime.

The novel is named after Oscar but this is the story of a family and a people. As much of the story focuses on his mother and his sister and his grandfather. The stories of his mother and grandfather are tragedies laced with brutal abuses by those in power, Oscar's mother only escaping the regime by the thinnest of margins. (The harrowing story of his mother is guaranteed to stick with you long after you put it down, and is only a quarter of the book.) Tragedy follows this family (fuku), but so does unexpected hope (zafa). Where the novel will end up is telegraphed from the start, but the odd details of the how keep you hooked.

This is a mesmerizing, enchanting and endlessly entertaining novel of family and country told with humor and footnotes and energy by an author with a unique voice and perspective. The narrative focus jumps around people and decades but reads seamlessly. The prose is electric, equally elegiac and poetic and the voice of the street, filled with Spanglish-infused slang and layered geek culture allusions. In the end the story is a tragedy, yes, but it is also a comedy and a chronicle of a people, equally at home in the every day life of the third world and the Dominican diaspora and the geek experience.

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in a word (obvious, I know, but true): wow.

This book was suggested to me by my good friend Julie, who has consistently amazing taste in books. See her twitter @CoolHandLoo

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