Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has received universal accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize. I was attracted to it in particular because of the immigrant theme (of Dominicans in New York) but it is so much more than that. All wrapped into one is the theme of immigration and "home," politics and culture of the Dominican Republic (including several lengthy footnotes!), coming-of-age, and J.R.R. Tolkien (along with role-playing games, Japanese animation, the Matrix, and a footnote about The Fantastic Four). They are bound together by a colloquial (often profane) and sometimes extremely funny narrator. I have not read many books that are both so funny and so sad.

It centers on Oscar, a young Dominican-American who is obese and heavily into fantasy and sci fi, and who is always falling hopelessly and fruitlessly in love, all the while writing fantasy stories and novels he does not complete. The narration also shifts to his family members, and the ways in which they all deal with the Dominican fukú, or curse. It goes back and forth between New York/New Jersey and the Dominican Republic.

The discussions of the DR are filled with ambivalence, with its irresistible pull yet also its corruption and extreme violence. Trujillo ("the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated") and his henchmen play prominent roles. Even this is intertwined with Tolkien: "he was also a flunky for the Trujillato, and not a minor one. Don't misunderstand: our boy was no ringwraith, but he wasn't no orc either". Trujillo is also deemed worse than Sauron because at least Sauron truly disappeared when the ring was destroyed, whereas Trujillo's legacy has hung over the DR.

All these pop culture references make the book universal despite its Dominican focus. Interestingly, one of the problems Oscar and his family have is that they are not quite in tune with Dominican culture, which sometimes leads to disaster (I won't say anything more as not to ruin the plot).


GS,  8:02 AM  

Got this book as a Christmas present last year. I loved it. My favorite line is towards the beginning of the book when he talks about the uncle and makes a distinction about the generations and the fuku, something like "more Macondo than McOndo." That, for me, brilliantly encapsulated the essence of the book.

mcentellas 3:15 PM  

My wife also read it, and has been pushing me to read it ever since. Did you catch him on NPR a few days ago (during a Thanksgiving show)?

Greg Weeks 3:47 PM  

No, I haven't heard him interviewed.

A visitor from Canada,  9:20 PM  

This is a great book. Absolutely brilliant, mastering the weird art of "Spanglish" like few people can.

Arriba Junot Diaz!

Randinho 10:40 PM  

He was profiled on CBS Sunday Morning some time ago. His own story is fascinating.

Laurence,  7:07 PM  

If you havent already I strongly reccomend you read 'Drown', also by Diaz. Its a collection of short stories but largely interlinked and with somewhat similiar themes to Oscar Wao. Blew me away when I first encountered it.

Very much enjoy the blog by the way, informative and useful (esepcially as a Latin American studies grad student!)

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