Wednesday Book Club: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Wednesday, 17 September 2008 — 12:32pm | Book Club, J.R.R. Tolkien, Literature

This week’s selection: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) by Junot Díaz.

In brief: Astounding. How often do you see a serious (but ironic) novel about serious (but ironic) things like immigration, masculinity, and postcolonial despotism get away with comparing the Dominican Republic to Tolkien’s Mordor, casting a mongoose as a guardian spirit, and measuring acts of brutality in hit points of damage—and make it all look so genuine?

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, keep reading below.)

A week ago I was lamenting the difficulty of bushwhacking my way through Ada‘s jungle of literary allusions and multilingual puns. Now here I am with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a book where every oblique allusion is a pleasure, not a puzzle, and the constant code-switching into Spanish flavours the prose with an indulgent but palatable spice (especially once I started punching some of the Spanish turns of phrase into Google Translate and discovered that most of them were, as I suspected, vulgarities).

The title may be misleading, but then again, maybe not. Oscar de Léon (“Wao” is a mispronunciation of “Wilde” that he doesn’t mind adopting) is the centre of attention in the novel’s first and last act, but he isn’t central throughout in the manner you might expect. At first, Oscar comes off as almost too cliché to be true: a lovelorn nerdboy antihero in the extreme, he is overweight, alone, trapped behind the dungeon-master screens of his role-playing games, and proportionately desperate for a girl. The novel takes off when Oscar recedes into the present and Díaz takes us into his family’s past, where we begin to see Oscar as a residual product of the Dominican Republic’s turbulent history—indeed, a transgenerational curse called the fukú.

Oscar Wao‘s middle chapters have the same appeal as Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, another superb novel that investigates the immigrant experience with a comic, contemporary reflection on the past lives that seemingly boring and conservative migrant parents keep hidden from view. Díaz’s is the tighter, darker book: the nonchalant narration that tosses scraps of escapist subculture this way and that is constantly at odds with what it depicts. Characters are beaten within an inch of their lives, and Díaz still dares us to laugh at the image of the violence as the passing consequence of a Dungeons & Dragons dice-roll.

Somehow, it works.

You see, the scenes in the Dominican Republic are set in the thirty-year reign of Rafael Trujillo, whom you may also have heard of as El Jefe (though Díaz prefers to call him the Failed Cattle Thief or alternatively, Fuckface). Díaz’s argument throughout the novel is that Trujillo’s regime was so outlandishly corrupt, the magnitude of its abuses so unthinkable, that “not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up.”

The specific comparison is to Sauron. In case you haven’t already noticed, Oscar Wao is an absolute dream of a novel for the Tolkien enthusiast. As I was reading it, I found myself looking forward to every digressive footnote on Dominican history, most of which portray Trujillo’s lieutenants as ringwraiths and Morgul Lords. Díaz presents a Dominican Republic where dictatorship, misogyny, and violence have gone so far to beat everyone senseless that the only recourse is to engage with and ridicule it through escapism. His modus operandi is the verbal transfiguration of reality into myth and magic—a conscious reversal of world literature’s by-now-orthodox convention of magic realism, where fantastic elements have a “real” existence but characters accept them as nothing extraordinary.

I have no problem with magic realism when it is done well, but Díaz’s challenge to it celebrates the essence of what storytelling is supposed to do: make reality even more interesting in the presentation. Oscar Wao is a kindred spirit to that other Pulitzer winner (and my favourite American novel), The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and not only because of their common literacy in superhero comics. What Junot Díaz and Michael Chabon have both observed is that life is full of wonders, as well as rife with all manners of villainy that compel us to escape. Genre is not something we should grow out of as we age, but an alternative cultural code for understanding the world.

And if we choose to be meta about it, genre offers a way of understanding how we understand the world. When Díaz compares more than one beautiful woman to Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Mars, he invokes all the values and biases of sci-fi’s Golden Age—the politics of skin colour and cultural hegemony that we cannot divorce from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ infamously colonialist stories of Martian adventure. Díaz spends the whole book sharing his (and Oscar’s) obvious love of Tolkien, which is also the narrator’s reluctant but insuppressible love of Tolkien, and then he drops this bomb:

He read The Lord of the Rings for what I’m estimating the millionth time, one of his greatest loves and greatest comforts since he’d first discovered it, back when he was nine and lost and lonely and his favorite librarian had said, Here, try this, and with one suggestion changed his life. Got through almost the whole trilogy, but then the line “and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls” and he had to stop, his head and heart hurting too much.

On the Dominican side of the multicultural coin, what should we make of the fukú?

The fukú americanus, the family curse attributed to the Dominican Republic’s very own He Who Must Not Be Named (Christopher Columbus—oh, bugger), is the real driving force of the novel. I would even argue that the two major questions that string the reader along the plot of Oscar Wao are, “How did the curse begin?” and “How will it affect Oscar in the end?” (i.e. “Will he ever get laid?”). As Díaz writes in the prologue:

It’s perfectly fine if you don’t believe in these “superstitions.” In fact, it’s better than fine—it’s perfect. Because no matter what you believe, fukú believes in you.

By the end of the book, even this imperturbable sceptic walked away convinced that the fukú was very, very real. Let me explain.

The fukú, as I understand it, is just another name for the Dominican Republic’s history of violence. Díaz traces it back to the arrival of You-Know-Who, but more pertinent to the novel is how the cyclical culture of division and resentment escalates under the genocidal rule of the Trujillato, and leaves its mark on generations to come. So the fukú is not genotypically inherited, as it would be in the naïvest conceptions of ethnicity, but phenotypically disseminated through an entrenched set of cultural norms that promote an expectation of hypermasculinity—power as expressed through woman-beating sexual dominance.

As I said at the beginning, Oscar isn’t especially unique as a stereotypical overweight nerd. What makes him a romantic antihero is the context in which he lives, where to be anything other than an alpha-male is un-Dominican. Oscar thinks he wants sex, but what he actually wants is love, and that’s what sets him apart from everyone else.

And that’s where the fukú comes in. Regardless of Oscar’s ideals, there is no escaping the scar that Trujillo’s regime—a nightmare of post-imperial misrule at its most extreme—has inflicted on all Dominicans. Or is there? I guess you’ll have to read the novel to find out.

On a final note, I want to draw attention to one of my favourite allusive moments in the book. And I have to do it carefully, because it comes right at the end, and I don’t want to give anything away.

In the penultimate section of the book, Díaz makes an explicit allusion to the ending of Alan Moore’s Watchmen. (I am sorry to say that Díaz gives it away. Read Oscar Wao, but read Watchmen first.) Then in the ultimate section of the book, the last three pages, Díaz rewards those of us who have read Watchmen with an implicit reprise of its final rays of hope.

It’s as if the book prepares us to think of Alan Moore in one way, then calls upon his powers in another. This is intertextual counterpoint at its best. You don’t need to be familiar with the allusion’s source to appreciate the sublimity of the scene, but it’s a brief, wondrous moment if you do.

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2 rejoinders to “Wednesday Book Club: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

  1. Thanks for the comment on my Wao post. I’m 30 pages in and loving it, but won’t finish for a while, since I’m back at school writing a senior English thesis on Hunter S. Thompson and subjective reporting in journalism!!

    Keep reading, my friend. I’m adding you to my blogroll.

    Saturday, 20 September 2008 at 1:38pm

  2. I read this in spurts. I didn’t care for Oscar’s POV much, and was going to give up (too angry, too caustic for my taste) and then the women came onto the stage, and I got sucked in. And then the narrator came on (whom I honestly to this day am not sure who he is) sounding similar to Oscar. Like some roller coaster ride for me. 🙂

    -Pink Ink from AW

    Friday, 26 September 2008 at 7:14am

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