Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Junot Díaz' The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Like a lot of people, I've been waiting for this book for a hell of a long time. There was a period a decade or so ago when Junot seemed to be publishing a new story every couple of months, and then his book came out, and it was so full of crazy energy that you figured he would be one of those guys who would just crank out stuff like a madman for the rest of his life, and it would all be awesome.

That's not how it worked out, though--he told me once a long while back that he had written a science fiction novel, of all things, and then that didn't pan out, and nothing of his appeared anywhere for a while. Then the "Oscar Wao" novella--which is a part of this new book--came out in the New Yorker, and it was instantly my favorite thing he'd ever written. He'd told people that it was modeled on "Heart of Darkness," and it ended with a mirror image of Kurtz's final words: "The beauty! The beauty!"

I didn't know what I expected with this thing. But I would never in a million years have guessed at what I actually got--this wild, ambitious, brutal, and unbelievable dorky masterpiece. The book reaches back through three generations of a Dominican family (the hapless Oscar's), and in doing so delivers a comic and horrifying gloss on twentieth-century Dominican history, with particular attention to the Trujillo regime of the thirties, forties, and fifties. The thesis here seems to be that the DR is somehow cursed, or maybe blessed, or maybe they're kind of the same thing; and the Dominican culture presented here is one of extremes--exile and return, unspeakable love and unspeakable violence, beauty and horror. And Oscar Wao, the protagonist, serves as the repository of all this insanity.

Oscar is a fantastic character, a classic. He's the first literary character I have ever read who represents so skillfully the tragic majesty of the consummate dork--sci-fi, D&D, Tolkein, the whole nine yards. Oscar is fat, horny, awkward, and pitiful, and his fall is the fall of the dork, though his redemption is the redemption of the hero. He's a stunner.

But what really impresses me here, and what's really strange about this novel, is what Díaz has done with Yunior, his perpetual narrator and alter ego. Yunior isn't Díaz, but boy is the guy asking for comparisons; he is Díaz' Zuckerman, his doppelganger. Yunior has always had a bit of the tragic to him; his masculine bluster serves as the comic fuel of Díaz' early stories, but ultimately Yunior is sad, he can't bring himself to say what needs to be said, he won't connect the dots for his listener. (And I mean listener, not reader, because the voice of Díaz' work is the sound of Yunior talking.) In this book, Yunior can't bring himself even to put the words "I love you" into his characters' mouths; they appear as three blanks, ____ ____ ____, like the names of towns in old Russian novels.

Something has changed with Yunior, though. He's onto himself, and Díaz provides, for the first time, a real sense of what he's become--a resigned ex-lothario teaching at a community college in Perth Amboy. More importantly, the dork in Yunior has emerged, and the novel is laced with the language of comics, monster movies, fantasy and horror novels, and role-playing games. Seriously, you can't turn a page here without hearing somebody compared to an orc. Yunior reveals himself slowly--he only appears as a character halfway through, and before that speaks most directly in footnotes. The result is shockingly meta, for a writer whose stock in trade had always been directness, but in retrospect you can see it brewing, this complex relationship to the self, both in the way Yunior talked about other people and the way Díaz talked about Yunior.

The spectacle of Yunior coming clean--about the workings of his mind, about his philandering and its consequences, about his disloyalty to friends and lovers--is really something to behold. It's amazingly intimate and candid, and as a result the avalanche of obscure pop culture references and untranslated Spanish seem, for the uninitiated, somehow inclusive rather than alienating. You're hearing this narrator's total, unvarnished self for the first time in this writer's career.

Even Díaz' presumably-abandoned SF novel seems to be making an appearance, as a lost manuscript of Oscar's--at least I like to think that's what those missing pages are. The book is full of little oddities like this, things that might be secrets, or magic spells, or maybe just trinkets. The book is all over the place, but nevertheless highly focused. I can't explain. It's manic and wildly successful, and just totally, unabashedly weird. As Yunior says, at one point: cue the theremins.


bigscarygiraffe said...

I just wanna let you know, man, that I wanna be you when I grow up...forget those hot shot writers with their body guards..

jrlennon said...


haha thanks!!

riveraphobia said...

Did we read the same novel? Would you even be able to recognize bad writing if you saw it? It's shit like this that gives literature a bad name. There hasn't been a novel this sloppy since Mailer's stinkers.

justcurious said...

Having just finished Roberto Bolano's epic novel "Savage Detectives", I find Junot Diaz's novel as brilliant as Bolano's, in some ways, even more political, raunchy, and visceral. I think that Diaz needs to write more, fast. We are all listening...