Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Diaz

Junot Diaz has provided an immense contribution to contemporary American literature with this novel. He, somewhat perplexingly, incorporates Dominican folklore, American culture, and comic-book fantasy into one seamless, powerful work of fiction. The narrator is a simultaneous throwback to the historic story-telling cultures (Latin, native American, Greek, Irish, etc.) but is also a nod to the American pop-culture “Watcher” narration of comic books and graphic novels; an explainer of mysteries, an omnipotent and omniscient master of the histories of every character, minor or major, this “Watcher” also plays a role in the story itself, which would be strange in more traditional story-telling models (i.e. Homer’s “chorus”) but is in keeping perfectly with some of the more popular American versions, such as the namesake “Watcher” from the Fantastic 4 storyline. Interestingly, one need not be a lover of comic books, or even familiar with them, to appreciate the deep, rich, and painful history of the Dominican Republic being presented in this book. I for one had no knowledge of the terrors – both ancient and recent – faced by the Dominican people. Diaz rails on about kleptocracies, corruption, Trujillo, Hitler, Castro, etc. He portrays America, not as a savior, but as an escape place. Someplace “less bad” but which is not invulnerable to the assaults of the Domincan gangsters. This depiction of the U.S. is relatively new and refreshing – a loss for the Utopian hopefuls (first placed under attack by the likes of Fitzgerald, Barthes, and West) but a valid and honest gain for the literary canon. The annotations are both brilliant and hilarious; the story is engaging, fast-pace, and vastly encompassing. Perhaps the most interesting and appreciated nuance of this novel, for me, is that the title character, Oscar Wao, is borderline minor in the grand scheme of the story. He is not even likeable, only a bit pitiable. The true story is about the people of the Domincan Republic, about diaspora (which Diaz apostrophes as a character, “Diaspora” to demonstrate the sad importance of the phenomena, especially for the people of the ever-dominated Latin islands). The main character is the “fuku” – an idea. A curse. And there is no happy ending, really – just a hope for one, without expectation. I couldn’t put this book down, and I’m eager to find his short story collection, “Drown.” Impressive, masterful, and truly important. On par with Eugenides as far as contemporary weight and influence on a very old art.

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