Sunday, November 15, 2009

Junot Díaz: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)

I'm a little late to the party on this one, I know. It's because I almost never read contemporary fiction, non-Japanese. Why? One, because I almost never read contemporary fiction, non-Japanese, so that when I do read a book, I can't properly contextualize it, and I find I have a hard time enjoying art I can't contextualize. So I'm an uptight academic at heart: surprise. Two, because no matter how much I enjoy it (and, to give the lie to that last statement, I enjoyed the bejeezus out of this novel), toward the end I start to feel guilty for not spending this time reading something that might someday contribute to a class, or an article. So I'm an uptight academic at heart: surprise.

But a dear friend recommended this to me, and in such specific terms that I just had to pick it up. Took me a while to get around to it, but.

Well, it is a masterpiece. It succeeds on so many levels, from the exhilarating bilinguality of the narration (I know just enough Spanish to get the frisson of catching some of the asides, and not enough to spoil it by catching them all) to the fascinating composite portrait it provides of, simultaneously, a family of Dominicans, and Dominican society as a whole (a society I freely admit I knew nothing about besides what you'd glean from the Boston media during the age of Manny, Pedro, and Big Papí). Plus, a lot of it takes place in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and by sheer chance I started reading this the day after I got back from a conference there. So I could envision some of the places it talks about...

Two things I want to mention about this book.

It dimly registered while I was reading it that the whole thing's a riff on Hemingway's "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber." It's such a magnificent book that you're almost embarrassed for Hemingway: put Oscar Wao in the ring with Francis Macomber, and Wao wins by a knockout in three. But this works to the book's advantage: you so quickly forget that Wao is an allusive variation on Macomber, you so quickly get immersed in the wondrous specificity of Díaz's achievement, that the inevitable ending may still come as a surprise. It was only when (spoiler alert) Oscar is out in that canefield that I found myself thinking, oh yeah, Mrs. Macomber. I mean, I should've been expecting it. That I wasn't shows that the book really worked for me. As an allusive variation. The Hemingway connection enriched the book for me, without overshadowing it.

Also: as something of a Tolkien aficionado, not to mention a nerd for all reasons, I thoroughly enjoyed Oscar's nerdessence. As a whitekid myself I'm always strangely embarrassed and heartened when I encounter people of color who co-inhabit my canon (I mean: why? but also, why not? but also, and again, why? etc.), so that's part of it. But mainly it's because I was moved, as a Tolkien reader, by Díaz's deep application of Tolkien to Dominica. I mean, us Tolkien apologists can talk about how there's depth there, meaning, significance; Díaz demonstrates it, by showing how Tolkien's imagery can, for one fanboy, capture deep feelings and understandings about a real-world event (the Trujillato). That is to say that, on a very deep level, Oscar Wao is about the power of literature in general, and Tolkien in particular, to help us make sense of life: Tolkien gives Oscar (not just Oscar: Yunior: Díaz) a vocabulary to talk about great evil, about torture, about destiny, about great beauty and strength, about death and violence and love.


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