Friday, 10 April 2009

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz

Read: February 2008

Oscar is a fat, Sci-Fi fanatic, Dominican immigrant living in New Jersey. Spends his days writing epic space opera novels, playing RPG’s, and reading comic books. Couldn’t get a girlfriend if his life depended upon it. And Oscar is a hapless romantic, a “passionate enamorao who [falls] in love easily and deeply.” And repeatedly. Unrequitedly.

And when you are born a fat nerd into a Dominican immigrant family whose community image basis itself on “Atomic Level G” pulling powers, a macho culture where sex is a status symbol, it all combines to make life rather difficult. "You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of colour in a contemporary US ghetto."

Then one night at college Oscar goes to a party dressed as Doctor Who. Oh dear Oscar. He looks like a “fat homo Oscar Wilde” – Wilde pronounced in a Dominican accent becomes Wao and a nickname is born. “And the tragedy? After a couple of weeks dude started answering to it.” Dude had his own superhero identity, just without the powers. Or the respect. Or the women.

And when you have all these problems the last thing you need is a family curse looming over you. But such is the family lot. Ever since Oscar’s grandfather made a drunken joke about the Domincan dictator Trujillo, the family have careered from catastrophe to catastrophe. They are burdened with a first rate fukú – “It is believed that the arrival of Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fukú on the world, and we've all been in the shit ever since” – and it shows no sign of skipping a generation. With occasional appearances from a golden eyed mongoose and a man with no face, the Cabral family, and Oscar in particular, fight against the fukú with all their might, try to pretend it doesn’t exist, that their fate is not already determined. But it is all to no avail. “No matter what you believe, fukú believes in you.” And now it has its grips on Oscar and it seems that there is nothing he can do to get his life back.

So while the narrative travels back into the family history of the Cabral’s, two questions hang over poor, lovable Oscar Wao: how will his brief wondrous life come to an end? And will he will ever fulfil his hearts desire and finally get his end away?

In a family epic to end all family epics, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao traces the Cabral family through the ages. From Oscar and his loving runaway sister Lola, through their beautiful, wasted mother Beli and their grandfather, Abelard, who brought the fukú of Trujillo upon the family. It is a tale which encompasses both the turbulent history of the Dominican Republic, and the experience of the immigrant Diaspora. In the epigraph Diaz quotes Derek Walcott on the experience of immigration: “either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.” And this is perhaps the crux of the book. Through the Cabral’s we tour a distilled version of Dominican history over the past 50 years: from the draconian dictatorship of ‘El Jeffe’ Trujillo – “Homeboy dominated Santo Domingo like it was his very own private Mordor” – to the everyday of its people. The Cabral’s are nobody’s, emigrants from their homeland, seekers of the better life abroad. But they are also representative of the nation, perhaps, in their struggles and joys, their adventures and outlooks, there diaspora. For this is, above all else, about the immigrant experience. About the insidiousness of the ‘other,’ the experience of being different.

Junot Diaz’s use of polyglot language is fantastic. He combines as much Dominican slang and dialect as you could possibly fit into an English language novel with the sort of sci-fi references usually reserved for Games Workshop on a Saturday afternoon. It is an immigrant nerd novel set amid a macho Latino community whose love of sex is so completely unfulfilled in its hero. Rarely do you read a novel and know you will not read another like it this year. Already voted by Time Magazine and the New York Magazine as the best book of 2007 it has been greeted with the same rapturous praise this side of the Atlantic. And you can see why. The prose is faultless: fast paced, insightful, concise, and with a touch of the wondrous to boot. Junot Diaz unquestionably has a very bright future.

Eleven years in the writing, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is worth the wait. It is both a mature and well planned novel and a stylish, contemporary soaked, romp through cultures you would never have imagined could mix. Anyone who can read will find something to enjoy in this writing. Junot Diaz has a created a book with something special in it, perhaps you could call it the Wao factor.

8 out of 10

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