From The Record, September 1st, 2017
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz… Now, I am no lackey to the pundits or critics, but those who saw fit to award Díaz’s work the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize got it right. I durst not enter into a battle of superlatives with the dust-jackets and websites, but the work is immediately arresting and compelling, and—for a comparatively traditional reader such as yrs sincerely!—very young and fresh in its use of language.
The main character of the story is Oscar de Léon, a native Dominican Republican who enjoys, as an immigrant kid in New Jersey, a few golden years as a casanova, then morphs into a fat, bezitted ghetto nerd with zero appeal for the ladies: “at best they ignored him, at worst they shrieked and called him gordo asqueroso!”
“Gordo asqueroso”, loosely translated as “fat, disgusting”, is something which, one discovers after some research, is glossed at a website entitled www.annotated-oscar-wao.com/, an indispensible aid to readers. This is because one aspect of the work that is both daunting and rewarding is a rich, dense use of language. Spanglish, Hispanic inner-city slang, allusions to Dominican history, contemporary nerd culture, and grunge bands appear with alarming frequency, and there are really no superfluous references. They all somehow drive the story ahead. In short, be prepared to do some digging if you want to appreciate the nuances of the story.
We follow Oscar through his painful high school years which see him bullied, rejected, mocked, and terminally sexually frustrated because of his character and appearance and obsession with science fiction (aka “genres”).
The narrative then leaves Oscar to take up with Oscar’s sister, Dolores (Lola) de Léon, who goes through a violent stage of teen-age rebellion which sees her embracing Goth culture, dropping out of school, selling french-fries on the Jersey Shore boardwalk, and moving in with a 19-year-old bumper-car operator. She is ultimately secured and de-programmed by her family and packed off to the Dominican Republic to live with her adoptive grandmother, La Inca.
You will have to summon all your powers of concentration as the story advances because Díaz uses a broken chronology—he focuses on Oscar (1974 – 1987), Lola (1982 – 1985), then their mother, Belicia Cabral (1955 – 1962), Oscar (1988 – 1992), then Belicia’s father (1944 – 1946), then Oscar again. So as Oscar’s main narrative advances, we are taken back in history to see how his mother and grandfather suffered under the dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, Dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930 – 1961. In effect, the comparatively banal and sordid accounts of the two siblings coming of age opens up into a sweeping history of generations of horror and trauma.
Throughout the story we see the characters being buffeted by their external circumstances—poverty, rejection, oppression—but also, by elements of personality and supernatural forces that alternately bring misery upon or protect them. The most significant of these is the FUKÚ which we are introduced to in the early chapters. It is a curse or an evil karma that was hatched, unleashed, born (???) with the arrival of the Europeans in the New World. This curse is what has brought about unremitting suffering at the hands of various dictators and is like a jinx that will randomly claim victims. In addition there is a force of “bruja” which seems a type of witchcraft, a wanderlust, at times a sexual adventurism, which seems to drive characters to destruction. There is also “zafa” which is a positive spell or positive magic conjured up to ward off evil.
As the story unfolds, we discover the unfortunate circumstances (including ill-fated encounters with Trujillo and associates) which first orphan Belicia Cabral then force her to flee the Domican Republic in fear for her life. Oscar himself, harmless old Oscar, runs afoul of members of the fascist establishment with dire consequences. At various odd moments we are introduced to guardian specters like the Mongoose and the Faceless Man, who seem both harbingers of evil and protectors. In the end Oscar seems to embrace his destiny and in a way absorb all the aspects, good and bad, of his family legacy.
In keeping with the tradition of Magic Realism it is difficult to situate exactly where the fiction leaves off and reality takes over. The background is (for the most part) meticulously constructed, with details of Dominican history woven in with the personal histories of the various family members. Those familiar with Jorge Luis Borgés and Gabriel Garcia Marquez will note more than a passing similarity. Oddly enough, this novel bears a resemblance to Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (reviewed in the Record, Good Reads, November 18th of last year) but this resemblance is explained when we discover that Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude influenced both Thien and Díaz profoundly. All three stories deal with the history of one family over several generations with a backdrop of hardship, tragedy, and political turmoil. Underlying all works is the idea of identity—how the individual consciousness and meaning are fashioned out of the events and beliefs of previous generations.
Yep! We do have this in the Lennoxville Library.
If you are moving or downsizing or in any way contemplating lightening your load of books, consider donating them to the Lennoxville Library. We will either use them in our collection or sell them to book enthusiasts who will provide them with happy homes. Contact us at 819-562-4949 or drop by at 101 Queen Street to make a book donation.