Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Junot Díaz - Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Two reviews of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
Nowadays, there may be Hmong in Madison and Somalis in St. Paul, but some of us still have trouble keeping up with all the intense cultural mixing and melting going on amid our purple-mountained majesty. For example, mention the Dominicans among us to the average Tom, Dick or Andy Rooney, and he's liable to speak of a mythical Shortstop Island from which wing-footed infielders plot their takeover of America's pastime. As for the Dominican Republic's history, imports, exports, that sort of thing? Well, its national baseball team is one of the best in the world, right? Or is that Venezuela?

Junot Diaz has the cure for such woeful myopia. The Dominican Republic he portrays in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a wild, beautiful, dangerous and contradictory place, both hopelessly impoverished and impossibly rich. Not so different, perhaps, from anyone else's ancestral homeland, but Diaz's weirdly wonderful novel illustrates the island's uniquely powerful hold on Dominicans wherever they may wander -- a borderless anxiety zone that James Baldwin would describe as "the anguished diaspora."

Thus, that nation's bloody history, often detailed in Diaz's irreverent footnotes, intrudes periodically in Oscar Wao, as if to remind Dominicans that tragedy is never far from one's doorstep. Or maybe it emerges simply to instruct the rest of us, because Diaz's characters are already painfully certain that they are destined for misfortune.
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The hero of Junot Díaz’s first novel is an overweight Dominican-American man named Oscar, a “ghetto nerd” from Paterson, N.J., and a devotee of what he somewhat grandly calls “the more speculative genres.” He means comic books, sword-and-sorcery novels, science fiction, role-playing games — the pop-literary storehouse of myths and fantasies that sexually frustrated, socially maladjusted guys like him are widely believed to inhabit.

But of course an awful lot of serious young-to-middle-aged novelists (Jonathan Lethem, Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon) hang around there as well, lingering over the narratives that fed their childhood imaginations in order to infuse their ambitious, difficult stories with some of the allegorical pixie dust and epic grandiloquence the genres offer. In “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Díaz, the author of a book of sexy, diamond-sharp stories called “Drown,” shows impressive high-low dexterity, flashing his geek credentials, his street wisdom and his literary learning with equal panache. A short epigraph from the Fantastic Four is balanced by a longer one from Derek Walcott; allusions to “Dune,” “The Matrix” and (especially) “The Lord of the Rings” rub up against references to Melville and García Márquez. Oscar’s nickname is a Spanglish pronunciation of Oscar Wilde, whom he is said to resemble when dressed up in his Doctor Who costume for Halloween.

“What more sci-fi than Santo Domingo? What more fantasy than the Antilles?” Oscar wonders. And the question of how to take account of his ancestral homeland — its folklore, its politics, the diaspora that brought so many of its inhabitants to North Jersey and Upper Manhattan — is one that explicitly preoccupies Oscar’s creator. The way Díaz tells it, the Dominican Republic, which occupies the Spanish-speaking half of the island where Columbus made landfall, is the kind of small country that suffers from a surfeit of history. From the start, it has been a breeding ground for outsize destinies and monstrous passions.
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