In this issue:
We enthusiastically welcome reviewer and author Joan L. Cannon to CultureWatch. She inaugurates her reviews with fiction works by three well-known and celebrated authors:
The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, won Junot Díaz a Pulitzer. The book is horrifying and often funny in a dark way, gripping and off-putting, sad and cathartic in the Aristotelian sense. Alice Hoffman's The Third Angel is literate, out-of-the-ordinary fiction. Robert Parker's Sea Change is a suspenseful story that carries one or two moral messages
THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO
By Junot Díaz © 2007
Riverhead Books, Publisher; Hardback, 335 pp
Move over, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Upton Sinclair … almost any satirist you might think of. Díaz attacks, not without sympathy, human foibles and cruelties and stupidities of so many kinds and on so many levels that it’s difficult to decide what to say about this Pulitzer prizewinner.
Díaz’s take on his homeland of the Dominican Republic, on his location in his adopted country of eastern New Jersey, on politics, poverty, sex, education, beauty, treachery, tradition (mostly Dominican), comics, electronic games, literature, academe, and on and on, and especially on love, confounds the mind with its acidity.
The book is horrifying and often funny in a dark way, gripping and off-putting, sad and cathartic in the Aristotelian sense. It will probably linger in readers’ minds for the rest of their lives.
This is the story of a Dominican immigrant, member of a dysfunctional family, unable ever to come to terms with his position in the world where he must function or die. He’s a young man who is, above all else, fat. Well, maybe not above all else, but that’s the way anyone who meets him thinks of him first. He’s a dreamer trying to live in a fantasy inspired sometimes by comic books, sometimes by computer games, occasionally even by literature.
Those attributes were one of three main difficulties as I read. The second is the plethora of Spanish slang, and I suspect, dialect (words not in a school Spanish dictionary). The third is that I’m not familiar with role-playing fantasy games such as Dungeons and Dragons, or the light-saber epics that form poor Oscar’s only comfortable milieus. Some references are to Tolkien, but others leave me adrift, trying to make sense purely from context. And to be fair, I think that works well enough.
However, a reader needs to be prepared for tragedy in almost every section of the story. Some are caused by the pains of adolescence, emphasized by Oscar’s physique and what gradually reveals itself as his intellectualism. In spite of his obsession with fantasy, he is perceptive and smart — but not about himself until it’s too late for him to be able to do anything about his life. Díaz has made a profound victim of his central character.
The story is told in separate (I’m tempted to say 'cantos' but don’t want to get caught in Díaz’s academic snares) sections that are dated and given different settings. The first is dated 1927-1987, narrated by the author. The central character is the overweight nerd previously described. He scrambles through his childhood in suburban New Jersey, but not without digressions into the disasters that have overtaken his mother in Santo Domingo. The action takes place during the infamous regime of Trujillo, made all the more grotesque by Díaz’s grim humor, expressed often in lengthy footnotes in tiny type. The chapters have titles that pound home the pain, cruelty, injustice, stupidity, not just of the dictatorship, but of its effect on Oscar’s mother and other relatives.
The next two sections are narrated by one of the actors in what is the tragic drama of Oscar’s family. There continue to be many extended, intricate, pseudo-scholarly footnotes that in themselves form a history of the “DR,” as they refer to it. While I kept hoping for a reprieve for Oscar, if not for his ruthless and heartless mother and sister, there is none. He doesn’t fall in love with someone worthy of the emotion — ever. Plot twists do nothing to relieve the incredible consistency of Oscar’s failures or the hardships visited on his family.
By the time the third and last section of the book is reached, it's apparent that nothing good can come of all this. The tale is a retrospective of European settlement in the Caribbean, of the slave trade, and the horrors inflicted by a sociopathic dictator, the cruelty to the ignorant, the hopelessness of poverty, the paucity of loyalty and friendship…. Well, maybe there’s one good thing: before the end, Oscar loses weight.
The structure of this novel is so intricate that you have to wonder how it came to be written while the author was teaching writing. If the Pulitzer is awarded on a basis of the amount of material that can be packed into a story, this would have been a winner on that basis alone. While wearied by the depressing nature of the tale, I couldn’t stop reading. If the characters hadn’t been given the backgrounds to explain them, the author's perspective and the dark humor, I couldn’t have finished it.
Having said all that, I confess I can’t be wholly enthusiastic about a novel that just misses being a polemic, that depends more than it needs to on shock vocabulary and that presents an author with so bitter a view of the world he inhabits.