Wonder boy

By Marlon James

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz
Riverhead, ISBN 978-1-59448-958-7, 340 pp

Junot Díaz

Junot Díaz. Photo by Lily Oei, courtesy Riverhead


1. A word from our sponsor

I hate skinny prose. I hate — hold on a second. Essayus interruptus. While I come not to bury Junot Díaz but to praise him (profusely), please allow for a word from our sponsor. As someone who hates reviews that include the “I”, I have ironically proved the rock band Jane’s Addiction true by becoming that which I hate. But I digress. I’m simply trying to explain that “I” will pop up all over this review, for two reasons. A novel with fearless, fire-breathing prose, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao downright demands a review in the first person, teasing and taunting the “I” like a call-and-response in church. This novel may be the first since Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities to snatch reading from a passive to an active experience. But, more than that, Díaz, like the very best of novelists (a list that does not include Wolfe, by the way), makes a voyeur out of the reader, pushing wide open windows into lives we don’t deserve to see. His novel begs for a kind of assessment not far removed from its own style of prose (not that I could even try to imitate it), hence the preponderance of “I”, a loud rather than subtle variant on “methinks” (which really should come back into the English language).

But enough with footnotes masquerading as disclaimers: back to the review.

I hate skinny prose. I hate astringent writing drained of emotion, wordplay, and fearlessness. I hate cleverness and quasi-humour. It seems to me there is a secret plot afoot in the postmodern novel to drain all that is joyful and glorious about the fiction that came before; to, in effect, erase ninety per cent of the novel’s audience: people who may not have otherwise read them. Bound to the Victorian novel as it may have been, the early-twentieth-century novel was also wonderfully inclusive, with prose that didn’t sell out so much as buy in, and with none of the literary elitism that drove books from everyday discourse. This is not a secret swipe at avant-garde fiction, since Díaz probably owes that a great deal. But one of the truly striking things about Oscar Wao is that it may well end up being read by the very people he wrote about. This is a by-no-means-small accomplishment.


2. Colonisation in inverse

A word or two about Oscar Wao and his brief life. In 1996, Junot Díaz debuted with a collection of short stories titled Drown, about life in the Dominican Republic as well as the Dominican republics of New York and New Jersey. Acclaim was rapturous, but it set off a lapse between first book and second that would last eleven years. There were times when nobody expected a second book from Díaz, not even Díaz himself, but here it is. In Oscar Wao, a crushingly overweight, tragically geeky, and hopelessly girl-obsessed comic-book nerd dreams of becoming a man and finding love. But he is doomed from the outset, not just by the ancient curse of the fukú (pronounced exactly as you think), but by being descended from a family hotwired for destruction by inside and outside forces (not the least of which is the notorious Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo).

None of this stops Oscar, of course, who sometimes runs on nothing but the sheer force of will, the stubborn belief that some way, somehow, things simply have to get better than this. He is the last of the dreamers and hopeless romantics, until he too runs out of hope. But the novel is about more than just Oscar Wao (the name is a play on Oscar Wilde, after his schoolmates begin to call him un maricón) and his considerable girth: it is also about his spunky, runaway sister Lola; his imperious and downtrodden mother Beli (a former hopeless romantic herself); and his grandmother, a matriarch by default. The novel skits from Manhattan’s Washington Heights to New Jersey to the Dominican Republic and back — not to mention the outer galaxy, the Marvel Comics Universe, the well-filled pants of Porfirio Rubirosa, Mordor, and the rest of Middle Earth.


3. Nobody and a nation

To enter the world of Oscar Wao is to immerse oneself in territory both hilariously strange and tragically familiar: a Nuyorican, Dom-Rep-style, Spanglish polyglot of languages, hip-hop slang, song and verse, the “N” word, the other “N” word, and the sort of swords-and-sorcery that is obsessed over by early-twenties male virgins, including our corpulent title character. But first the novel risks a particular danger, one that sank Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, the task of overcoming its own epigraph. In Saturday’s case, the gut-kick of a passage that McEwan pulled from Saul Bellow was a burst of spontaneous stream-of-consciousness that totally overshadowed the schematic novel that followed. But the two epigraphs at the beginning of Oscar Wao — one from the comic series Fantastic Four, the other from Derek Walcott’s poem “The Schooner Flight” — are crucial, because they give a foretaste of the twin peaks of this novel’s obsessions: the possibility of transcendence at the end of geekiness, and the shiftiness of identity in the immigrant landscape, where Walcott recognises that he is both “nobody” and “a nation.”

Oscar Wao is an immigrant novel, in a way, but its allegiance is to the new breed of immigrant novel, like Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, and Moshin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist; novels that reverberate an old Eagles lyric: you can check out (of your place of origin), but you can never leave. So characters come and go, and they are nobody and a nation, but a nation more alive in the present than anybody else’s. Present enough to strip the word “nigger” of any racist baggage (the way Walcott does or does not in “The Schooner Flight”, depending on your point of view). This is a story about a family, but a family interrupted three times by Trujillo; people who are so busy just surviving that not a single character realises the heroic triumph of mere survival. The ghost of memory always hovers, betraying people too young for nostalgia and rewiring the future so that it looks an awful lot like the past. Each generation experiences political brutality in its own way.

The Chilean novelist José Donoso once said that transformation is always punished with violence, and nearly everybody in Oscar Wao, including Oscar, pays a bloody price for change. In this world (so much like ours) men leave, but they are also taken away, and mothers, having nothing left to build on but bitterness, strengthen their backbones with the very thing that causes their children to rebel and to make the same mistakes.


4. Lone observation without a paragraph to go with it

Going but never leaving: the characters in Oscar Wao return to the Dominican Republic to realise they never left.


5. N to the igger

Oscar Wao is more than simply an innovative work or a groundbreaking one. It is, in my opinion anyway, where Caribbean fiction must go. This is the type of book that will make people want to write books. A work that divorces itself from colonial and post-colonial reference points and admits that we’re far more influenced by hip-hop, Starsky and Hutch, reality TV, Jay-Z, the card game Magic: The Gathering, Spanglish, dancehall, and reggaeton than we care to admit. In this regard, with its sampling, borrowing, stealing, and co-opting, Oscar Wao may be the first true hip-hop novel. Certainly the first to use the word “nigger” so outrageously cavalierly — as if it were merely another word in a postmodern dialogue:

He got so bad that one desperate night, after listening to Ana sobbing to him on the phone about Manny’s latest bullshit, he said, I have to go to church now, and put down the phone, went to his tío’s room (Rudulfo was out at the titty bar), and stole his antique Virginia Dragoon, that oh-so-famous First Nation-exterminating Colt .44, heavier than bad luck and twice as ugly. Stuck its impressive snout down the front of his pants and proceeded to stand in front of Manny’s building almost the entire night. Got real friendly with the aluminium siding. Come on, motherfucker, he said calmly. I got a nice eleven-year-old girl for you. He didn’t care that he would more than likely be put away forever, or that niggers like him got ass and mouth raped in jail . . . He didn’t care about nada that night. His head contained zero, a perfect vacuum. He saw his entire writing future flash before his eyes; he’d only written one novel worth a damn . . . wouldn’t get a chance to write anything better — career over. Luckily for the future of American Letters, Manny did not come home that night.

Díaz’s prose flows like conversation. This is writing done in fits and starts. Lines that do not end so much as stop, as if bored with thought number one while in the midst of thought number two. And while you roll the preceding paragraph on your tongue, witnessing Díaz tearing twenty-first-century English language a new one, here’s another:

Abelard, instead of bringing his wife and daughter to Jefe events, as custom dictated, began to make a point of leaving them at home. He explained to his friends that his wife had become “nervous” and that Jacquelyn took care of her but the real reason was Trujillo’s notorious rapacity and his daughter Jacquelyn’s off-the-hook looks . . . adolescence had struck with a fury, transforming her into a young lady of great beauty. She had caught a serious case of the hips-ass-chest, a condition which during the mid-forties spelled trouble with a capital T to the R to the U to the J to the illo.

Other times he dangles live breathing words in your face — prose so fresh it achieves the difficult trick of volume as if someone is speaking, no, shouting at you, something that you’ve never heard before but wish to hear more of.

. . . none of Abelard’s books, not the four he authored or the hundreds he owned, survive. Not in an archive, not in a private collection. Every paper he had in his house was confiscated and reportedly burned. You want creepy? Not one single example of his handwriting remains. I mean, OK, Trujillo was thorough. But not one scrap of paper with his handwriting? That was more than thorough. You got to fear a motherfucker or what he’s writing to do something like that.

But hey, it’s only a story, with no solid evidence, the kind of shit only a nerd could love.

One is tempted to call Oscar Wao a writer’s novel. But that would not only short-change it, it might discourage the non-writer from reading it, which would be a shame, since this may be the first truly public fiction from a esteemed literary talent since, well, Drown. Smart but never smart-ass, Díaz has the guts to wear his sentimentality on his sleeve as well. It’s enough to make an old reader remember and a young reader discover that genuine feeling is not a bad thing in a novel; in fact, it can make a good moment transcendent. At the very least, it gives us cause to truly love a novel instead of respecting its technical brilliance.


6. Of love and other demons

Intimacy is a dual carriageway, of course, exposing you to things you’d rather not know. The warts in the all that either holds your affection for characters in check, or allows it to boil over. So the nakedly honest narrator finds himself transformed by Oscar, a fact that we know before he does. For such a cocksman, the narrator has already been affected by Oscar’s love for swords-and-sorcery to the point where it is he and not Oscar who expects you to the understand when he compares a female character to Galadriel from The Lord of the Rings. Put another way, Oscar allows the narrator (and the reader) to connect with his inner geek. I left this novel realising that 1. I’m geekier than I think, 2. it’s all good, and 3. instead of denying myself, why not let it explode in my fiction? Suddenly I feel like an idiot for cutting the phrase “Beefheartian chaos” from my first novel.

But this is not just a novel about a geek. Oscar Wao is about a family and a nation in the grip of one of the most surreal reigns of terror in the twentieth century. It’s tempting to give that time a Latin spin, evoking a different kind of magical realism, if only because the brutality of it bended fact. The Trujillo regime wrecks Oscar’s family three times, but more than that, the novel spits and lurches as if under the crushing weight of El Jefe himself. It scrambles to make sense of the senseless with footnotes (a terrible device in most novels, but brilliantly deployed here) loaded with just enough fact to make the story more plausible but no less insane. Oscar Wao also raises questions about truth that novels don’t ask anymore, calling the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa to task twice, first for turning one of the most vicious Dominican monsters, Joaquín Balaguer, into a nice guy:

During the second period of his rule, known locally as the Twelve Years, he unleashed a wave of violence against the Dominican left, death-squading hundreds . . . Joaquín Balaguer was a Negrophobe, an apologist to genocide, an election thief, and a killer of people who wrote better than himself, famously ordering the death of journalist Orlando Martínez . . . Appeared as a sympathetic character in Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat.

In his own way, Díaz moves to the front ranks of new Latino novelists for whom the patron saint is the Chilean Roberto Bolaño. Writers who, like Bolaño, disavow magical realism largely because the sheer madness of their respective oppressive regimes was surreal enough. These are writers who distance themselves from the blind elitism of their forbears, calling out, explicitly or implicitly, novelists like Gabriel García Márquez for befriending dictators like Castro, and Vargas Llosa for rewriting the history of monsters so that they become heroes. Like Bolaño in By Night in Chile, Díaz dares to return us to the moral question, the very ethical purpose of the novel itself (John Gardner must be smiling), and the culpability of the writer. Oscar Wao’s narrator, himself a writer, cannot escape some responsibility in the fate of Oscar. Could Díaz by extension be saying that neither can writers such as García Márquez and Vargas Llosa escape their tacit role in the lives of brutal men? The problem with magical realism is that for all its brilliance it also conveniently sidestepped history. Remedios the Beauty may have flown to heaven, but the real Remedios would have been raped by a commandante before she grew inconvenient pubic hairs, then beaten and thrown in a ditch somewhere; an actuality never really touched in Latin boom fiction, even though these atrocities occurred right in the midst of it. Oscar Wao shouts that which dare not speak its name in Latin America: the history of violence. Maybe it stays quiet because each of us in our own way is complicit. But nobody is a passive participant in this novel, not even the reader. Does that go for history as well? I’m not sure there is an answer, but credit has to go to a novel that asks the question at last.


7. My mother who fathered me, version 2.0

Family novels set in the Caribbean also tend to be novels about women. Regardless of place of origin or country of residence, women hold Caribbean families together. But that sentence is too easy. And had Díaz left it there, he would have ended up with a well-written but not remarkable novel. The wounds of his women are just as often self-inflicted, and they are all are caught in the wicked insanity of doing the same things (same patterns, same loves, same men, same wild dreaming) and expecting a different result. Grandmother, mother, and daughter are all fools for love who almost pay for foolishness with their lives. Women bowed down by such harshness and violence that they flee, to other homes or to the US, but who in the end can only teach harshness and disappointment, thwarting their daughters’ expectations before men come — and one always does — to take them away permanently.

A Caribbean novel about family is a novel without men. As such, men, including the narrator, come off as vain, irresponsible, drunk, brutal poontang-hounds who never enter a situation without leaving it worse. A lazy reader would say Díaz is merely playing up a tired Latin stereotype. But I’m writing this review in Washington Heights, where a good portion of the novel is set, and I can tell you nobody perpetuates the Dominican male stereotype more than the Dominican male himself. It’s a badge of identity that is his and his alone. A walking proof that he’s not un maricón (even if he is on the down-low), an attempt to convince us of heterosexuality so extreme it’s cartoony, just as it is with Puerto Ricans in reggaeton verses, Jamaicans with dancehall’s rapacious sexual appetite and revulsion against homosexuals, and Italian Americans who still wear “Italians Do It Better” t-shirts.

Transformation is always punished with violence, unless it happens unawares. Oscar is not the only character in this sprawling novel, but even when he is not present in the flesh, he is muse and pivot, transforming everybody around him. It is he who liberates the far cooler narrator to draw an allusion such as this: “You really want to know what an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart, bookish boy of colour in a contemporary US ghetto.” Substitute “diaspora” for “US ghetto”, and the sentence loses none of its punch; indeed, it becomes even more heartbreaking. Of course, that’s easy for me to say. I can distinguish X-Men stories by issue number.

I finished Oscar Wao on the F train to Brooklyn, stealing glances at my fellow passengers, hoping none had noticed I was getting choked up. Only the most well-wrought tragedies have the balls to be outrageously funny. Nowadays, true literary bravery means risking sentimentality, offering two servings of heart followed by a dessert full of heartbreak. Despite the immense tragedy near its end, I can’t help but be inspired by Oscar Wao’s dogged romanticism and old-world courage, and I hope some of it has rubbed off on me as well. Or maybe I’m just staggered by the thought that I can’t remember the last or the first time I was moved almost to tears by a character finally getting some sex.


The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2008

Marlon James published his first novel, John Crow’s Devil, in 2005. It was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. His second novel will be published in 2009.