I’ve written a couple of times recently about the author Junot Diaz and here I am again writing about him because a few days ago I finished his first novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I had high expectations given that it had won last year’s Pullitzer Prize and I certainly was not let down. I have not read a book like it. There are few times when an author attempts something different or radical and it actually works in a way that is seamless and not over-wrought or trying too hard but Diaz has done it with this book.
A brief synopsis: Oscar de Léon is a “ghetto nerd” from a family of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. The de Leon‘s have been plagued by the fukú curse that is believed to be inflicted upon the aboriginal people of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. Oscar sees himself as a sort of unlikely hero in pursuit of his personal Grail—a “pure and unadulterated love.” He is obsessed with science fiction and fantasy and these two genres are incorporated quite heavily within the narrative itself. Oscar is alienated from his lower-class community and his whole life is one continuing saga where he is the victim of the narrow perspectives of those without his imagination and vision.
My only regret is that before I read the novel I read the (long) short story that Diaz extended into the novel. The short story goes by the same title and is in the New Yorker archive if you want to check it out. My regret is born of two points, the first being that obviously there were whole sections that I was rereading which removed some of the surprise and freshness for me…but then that is entirely my own doing as I could have waited and just read the novel straight off the bat. The other point is that I knew what was going to happen in the end and all that Peter Brooks stuff about narrative desire and the psychology of why we read, well its true, because again the suspense was ruined for me. Yet! There is still so much to be had. Yunior, who is the narrator of this book, has one of the all time greatest voices and Diaz is expert in how he has Yunior tell us this story. I was thinking about reliable narrators a lot throughout this novel and of course the argument could easily be made about how unreliable a narrator Yunior is given his relationship to the other characters and the time frames within which a lot of the action occurs, not to mention the emotional and mental insight he has, or assumes to have. Yet it is this which makes his telling of it so believable also. He makes no secret of his unreliability. For example Chapter 5 and the proceeding fifty or so pages are dedicated to the telling of two years between 1944 and 1946 of a man named Abelard Luis Cabral, Oscar’s Grandfather. Yunior opens the chapter like this (please note the footnote):
When the family talks about it all – which is like never- they always begin in the same place: with Abelard and the Bad Thing he said about Trujillo. 22
22. There are other beginnings certainly, better ones, to be sure – if you ask me I would have started when the Spaniards “discovered” the New World – or when the U.S. invaded Santo Domingo in 1916 – but if this was the opening that the de Leons chose for themselves, then who am I to question their historiography?
So Yunior is telling the story as he knows it, as he has heard it over the years that he has been associated with the de Leons. To fill you in, Yunior is the on-off boyfriend of Oscar‘s sister Lola and was also Oscar‘s roommate at University. His love for this family and all that they have gone through generationally also inflects his voice with a compassion that is passed on to the reader and which makes us more invested in what happens to them and where this story is going.
The novel toggles between the Dominican Republic and New York and spends a great deal of time explaining the story in terms of Dominican history. We learn a lot about the dictator Trujillo and the havoc his regime wreaked and Dominican history overall. Diaz also uses A LOT of spanish as well as site specific lingo which seems to authenticate the narrator’s voice as much as it kind of creates this veil effect. I wouldn’t say it distances the reader, rather it makes you feel close to the action but with a screen between you and the characters, if you could just decipher that one word or that oddly positioned phrase you would have the whole thing stitched. But of course that is not the case, you gain no more and no less whether you can understand Spanish or not. Again, it is just another narrative device that Diaz uses and which only brightens the pleasure the book gives to the reader.
One other thing I would like to mention is Diaz’s use of footnotes. (He rivals David Foster-Wallace in the great short story in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men) I mean he really REALLY uses them. There are pages where the footnotes take up more space than the main text. Many times you wonder why they are even there. Not that they aren’t interesting, but they seem to be an extension of Yunior’s character. It is as if he is telling you the story but then he also needs to give you this other comment or opinion that isn’t really part of the main story but something he still really needs to say. He also gives you, via these footnotes, a lot of information about Dominican figures and characters that whilst aren’t part of this particular story are very important to the history of the D.R. and this therefore only expands the contextual image we have in our minds and deepens our understanding of the characters.
I finished reading this book about three days ago but still the voice of Yunior is loud and clear in my head as though I had actually listened to an audio recording of this book. I mean I can really hear it. This book is dense and rich and so generous and I feel a little sad because I have mined the net and everywhere else I can to read more Diaz and now that I am all done I can either reread or just wait for the next thing he does.