Synopsis: Overweight Dominican uber-nerd battles a ‘fuku’, a Caribbean curse that has beleaguered his family across two countries and over three generations, in his quest for love and the fame of becoming “The Dominican JRR Tolkien”.
My Take: Strangely enough for a recent Pulitzer Prize winner, I only heard about Junot Diaz’s “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” whilst perusing a few ‘Best books of the Noughties’ lists earlier this year. I’m not sure how I missed it when it was released in 2007 because it’s just the kind of thing that I’m naturally drawn to – a quirky, cross-cultural narrative with a prose that fizzes and pops with life. Better late than never though I guess, because “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is one of the best books I’ve read in recent times.
TBWLOW is a difficult book to categorise. It somehow manages to combine elements of an urban modernist tale, a multi-generational family epic, a cultural history of the Dominican Republic and a magical realist fable into a genuinely unique literary form. Similarly, it’s not often you read prose that combines Hispanic street slang, obscure science fiction references, high literary allusions and magic realist metaphors in a single novel. It’s bizarre – but it works.
These disparate literary forms are bound together by the eponymous Oscar de Leon (mockingly known as “Oscar Wao” in reference to the Spanish pronunciation of Oscar Wilde, whom Oscar’s peers disparagingly claimed he resembled when in costume as Dr Who). Oscar is a strange and sad protagonist. Growing up as a poor Hispanic immigrant in Patterson, New Jersey, Oscar is saddled with the dual burdens of a morbidly obese frame and a personality shaped by his devotion to Science Fiction/Fantasy (or as Oscar describes the “the more speculative genres”).
As Yunior, the third-person narrator of Oscar’s story sums it up “Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everybody’s always going on about – he wasn’t no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock”. These afflictions are particularly tragic because beneath his overweight and nerdy exterior beats the heart of a hopeless romantic. Oscar is no wall flower – against all odds he continues to put himself out there in pursuit of his frequent crushes however his appearance and his “Dune” allegories, “The Matrix” quotes and “Lord of the Rings” references are unable to win him even a single kiss (strangely enough proclaiming that a girl is “orchidaceous” is not a winning strategy). Even worse, Oscar knows he needs to lose the weight, as well as the comic books and role-playing games if he is going to get the girl, but for some reason is powerless to become the master of his own destiny.
This is where TBWLOW takes a very strange turn. Through the eyes of Oscar’s mother, Beli, and his sister, Lola, TBWLOW takes on an epic aspect and Diaz portrays the sweep of Dominican history and the story of the D.R.’s U.S. Diaspora on a grand scale. We learn that a run in with the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic two generations ago has left Oscar’s family as the victim of a ‘Fuku’, a curse that pervades all aspects of the family’s life. As this new aspect of the story unfolds, a strong magic realist thread emerges opening up a completely unexpected dimension to the novel.
It’s all very strange, but somehow it works perfectly. The novel never seems to jar despite the jumble of literary methods it employs and the core narrative of the story feels like it is unfolding completely naturally. It’s only when you look back on the story and think “how did I get here?” that you realise the strange mix of approaches that are brewing in this novel.
I can’t recommend the Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao enough.
Sophomore year Oscar’s weight stabilized at about two-ten (two-twenty when he was depressed, which was often), and it had become clear to everybody, especially his family, that he’d become the neighborhood pariguayo. He wore his semikink hair in a Puerto Rican Afro, had enormous Section-8 glasses (his anti-pussy devices, his boys Al and Miggs called them), sported an unappealing trace of mustache, and possessed a pair of close-set eyes that made him look somewhat retarded. The Eyes of Mingus (a comparison he made himself one day, going through his mother’s record collection; she was the only old-school Dominicana he knew who loved jazz; she’d arrived in the States in the early sixties and shacked up with morenos for years until she met Oscar’s father, who put an end to that particular chapter of the All-African World Party). Throughout high school he did the usual ghettonerd things: he collected comic books, he played role-playing games, he worked at a hardware store to save money for an outdated Apple IIe. He was an introvert who trembled with fear every time gym class rolled around. He watched nerd shows like “Doctor Who” and “Blake’s 7,” could tell you the difference between a Veritech fighter and a Zentraedi battle pod, and he used a lot of huge-sounding nerd words like “indefatigable” and “ubiquitous” when talking to niggers who would barely graduate from high school.
He read Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman novels (his favorite character was, of course, Raistlin) and became an early devotee of the End of the World. He devoured every book he could find that dealt with the End Times, from John Christopher’s “Empty World” to Hal Lindsey’s “The Late Great Planet Earth.” He didn’t date no one. Didn’t even come close. Inside, he was a passionate person who fell in love easily and deeply. His affection—that gravitational mass of love, fear, longing, desire, and lust that he directed at any and every girl in the vicinity—roamed across all Paterson, affixed itself everywhere without regard to looks, age, or availability. Despite the fact that he considered his affection this tremendous, sputtering force, it was actually more like a ghost because no girl ever seemed to notice it.
Anywhere else, his triple-zero batting average with the girls might have passed unremarked, but this is a Dominican kid, in a Dominican family. Everybody noticed his lack of game and everybody offered him advice. His tío Rodolfo (only recently released from Rahway State) was especially generous in his tutelage. We wouldn’t want you to turn into one of those Greenwich Village maricones, Tío Rodolfo muttered ominously. You have to grab a muchacha, broder, y méteselo. That will take care of everything. Start with a fea. Coge that fea y méteselo! Rodolfo had four kids with three different women, so the nigger was without doubt the family’s resident metiéndolo expert.
Oscar’s sister Lola (who I’d start dating in college) was a lot more practical. She was one of those tough Jersey Latinas, a girl soccer star who drove her own car, had her own checkbook, called men bitches, and would eat a fat cat in front of you without a speck of vergüenza. When she was in sixth grade, she was raped by an older acquaintance, and surviving that urikán of pain, judgment, and bochinche had stripped her of cowardice. She’d say anything to anybody and she cut her hair short (anathema to late-eighties Jersey Dominicans) partially, I think, because when she’d been little her family had let it grow down past her ass—a source of pride, something I’m sure her rapist noticed and admired.
Oscar, Lola warned repeatedly, you’re going to die a virgin.
Don’t you think I know that? Another five years of this and I’ll bet you somebody tries to name a church after me.
Cut the hair, lose the glasses, exercise. And get rid of those porn magazines. They’re disgusting, they bother Mami, and they’ll never get you a date.
Sound counsel, which he did not adopt. He was one of those niggers who didn’t have any kind of hope. It wouldn’t have been half bad if Paterson and its surrounding precincts had been, like Don Bosco, all male. Paterson, however, was girls the way N.Y.C. was girls. And if that wasn’t guapas enough for you, well, then, head south, and there’d be Newark, Elizabeth, Jersey City, the Oranges, Union City, West New York, Weehawken—an urban swath known to niggers everywhere as Negrapolis One. He wasn’t even safe in his own house; his sister’s girlfriends were always hanging out, and when they were around he didn’t need no Penthouses. Her girls were the sort of hot-as-balls Latinas who dated only weight-lifting morenos or Latino cats with guns in their cribs. (His sister was the anomaly—she dated the same dude all four years of high school, a failed Golden Gloves welterweight who was excruciatingly courteous and fucked her like he was playing connect the dots, a pretty boy she’d eventually dump after he dirty-dicked her with some Pompton Lakes Irish bitch.) His sister’s friends were the Bergen County All-Stars, New Jersey’s very own Ciguapas: primera was Gladys, who complained constantly about her chest being too big; Marisol, who’d end up in M.I.T. and could out-salsa even the Goya dancers; Leticia, just off the boat, half Haitian, half Dominican, that special blend the Dominican government swears no existe, who spoke with the deepest accent, a girl so good she refused to sleep with three consecutive boyfriends! It wouldn’t have been so bad if these girls hadn’t treated Oscar like some deaf-mute harem guard; they blithely went on about the particulars of their sex lives while he sat in the kitchen clutching the latest issue of Dragon. Hey, he would yell, in case you’re wondering, there’s a male unit in here. Where? Marisol would say blandly. I don’t see one.