Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Here is the rare book that includes a spoiler in its very title. Before you even open to the first page, Junot Diaz informs you that his hero, the impossibly overweight, impossibly nerdy Dominican New Jerseyite Oscar de Leon, is not long for this world. Poor Oscar. Never had a chance. The only real question, I guess, is whether or not he'll die a virgin.

Of course, it isn't just Diaz that predetermines Oscar's demise, but fuku, a Dominican curse that follows Oscar's family over several generations, all the way back to the monstrous reign of Rafael Trujillo, whose specter hangs over the book even long after the de Leons have moved to America. For Oscar's mother and grandfather, fuku meant savage beatings and imprisonment at the hands of the Trujillate. For Oscar, fuku means that he is cursed to play Dungeons and Dragons while the cool kids are at parties; it means while he's catching up on his anime everyone else is getting laid--a lesser fuku, you would have to admit, though perhaps not by the degree you would suppose. Oscar lives a life that, while marginal, is uniquely American; Diaz shows us how cultural ideas can translate strangely across nations and generations, yet remain unmistakably relevant. Though he is wheedled by his family and friends for being un-Dominican, it isn't until he returns to the Dominican Republic, compelled by possibly requited love, that the fuku can be broken.

And as compelling as Oscar's story is, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao can be a frustrating read because too often Diaz lets everyone else get in the way. The middle section of the book is cored out to accommodate lengthy discourses on his sister, his mother, and his grandfather, and while those stories are interesting in their own right, leaving Oscar to the endpapers of his own book seems somehow unjust. I found myself thinking of two other books which deal with the same cultural collisions with less mess: One is The Joy Luck Club, which packages each character's story into neatly stacked chapters. The other is another Pulitzer prize winner, Middlesex, which, while by no means a great success, at least has the sense to build a family story chronologically to create some sort of narrative thrust.

But Oscar Wao, coño, what a mess. It reminds me of one of those plastic novelty slugs filled with water--you know, the ones that fold over themselves like an elongated donut so that you can't hold onto them*. And this one's sprung a leak. There is an underlying pattern, I'm sure, that Diaz had in mind by heading backward in time with each successive chapter only to rocket back to the beginning, but the result is maddening. I kept expect to return to Oscar, who is the book's only truly interesting character, but instead I kept getting rewarded by another trip in the Delorean (and here's where Yunior, Oscar's roommate and narrator, would have provided a much more obsure example of a time machine to color the narrative).

On the micro level, too, Oscar Wao is unwieldy--Diaz writes in a unique twist on that hyperactive, barely stable post-modern dialect that is peppered with oblique sci-fi references, unnecessary Spanish, lengthy footnotes, and muddled metaphors. It's hard not to admire its breathtaking energy, but it's the kind of style that works only once and I fear it will inspire a thousand would-be imitators. Behold:

And who knows what might happen to the girl among the yanquis? In her mind the U.S. was nothing more and nothing less than a pais overrun by gangsters, putas, and no-accounts. Its cities swarmed with machines and industry, as thick with sinverguenceria as Santo Domingo was with heat, a cuco shod in iron, exhaling fumes, with the glittering promise of coin deep in the cold lightless shaft of its eyes.

Yanquis and pais I find forgivable, but why subject us to the teetering construction that is sinverguenceria instead of "shamelessness?" And then there's cuco, which as far as I can tell suggests "cuckoo" but more likely refers to a mythical bogeyman-like monster, this one "shod in iron" like a robot. And notice how that last sentence, as evocative as it is, lacks a subject or lets one--"its cities swarmed with machines and industry"--be lost in the shuffle. "The glittering promise of coin deep in the cold lightless shaft of its eyes" is a jumble of half-metaphors. This isn't a sentence; it's a heap of jargon. I'm not even going to mention the lack of quotation marks in dialogue.

I wanted to like this book, but it is elusive. It's as if too often Diaz wants us to love this book for its manic nature, its quirkiness and affability, but it is difficult to love Oscar and his book simultaneously. Oscar himself is slow-moving, ponderous, and deep; his Brief and Wondrous Life is, regrettably, none of those things.

*There has to be an official term for these. I don't know what they're called so I can't find a picture of one.


Brooke said...

I'm glad I read your review, because I had big plans for buying this book. Which I will no longer be doing.

Christopher said...

Get it from the library. It's still worth reading, but probably not worth owning.