Junot Diaz: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

I read this on a recommendation from a friend and because of this I knew, even before I opened it, some of the themes I was likely to hit upon here: non-white/non-Western/marginalised narratives, strong women, wronged women; perhaps immigration and diaspora; almost certainly this novel would be defiantly Modern. My instincts were correct, but how could I have anticipated such a depth and breadth of brilliance (even with the legend ‘Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction’ splashed across the cover)? I am still reeling from this book, which drew me in and forced me to read it for two days straight, stopping only for work, toilet breaks, sleep and food.

Let’s try to summarize: there is a boy called Oscar, who lives in the Dominican Republic, is very fat and lonely, and very into reading and writing sci-fi. He dies young, slightly less fat and lonely. He has a family, which may or may not bear a curse, or fuku. We learn more about where this belief comes from; about the Dictator Trujillo (who, to my shame, I knew absolutely nothing about before this book) and Oscar’s Grandfather’s dealings with him and the consequences for his mother, his sister and his aunt… It’s a novel with so much in it that perhaps this is the worng angle to approach it from.

Let’s talk about how it’s done. The narrative voice is Oscar’s roomate from University and his sister’s lover, but he seems to have an omniscient perspective which makes one think perhaps his identity is more fluid – perhaps there are more voices at work here. This would fit, because if you take anything away from this work, it is an astonishing multiplicity of perspective; a loose grip on reality that seems somehow more all-encompassing and reasonable than pure realism could ever be. In this respect it reminded me of Toni Morrisson’s Beloved which insists that magical realist/supernatural fiction is the only possible way to tell a story so filled with atrocity and hurt; the subject matter transcends what is know-able or understandable. So it is with Oscar Wao. Love and death; black and white; violence and tenderness; good and evil; women and men – talk about big themes. No wonder Oscar loves Sci-fi. One feels that his life and his family’s life, and their people’s life is almost as dramatic and fantastical.

This is a text that has no qualms about making the reader uncomfortable, about calling the enlightened Western reader’s bluff, about taking him to task about how little he knows about this writer’s national history. I’m sure I’m not the only person who felt the sting in the footnotes which set out Dominican political history: a rough guide. I’m sure I’m not the only person who keenly felt their own ignorance of Spanish, faltering through speech and grasping at familar sounds in an effort to comprehend. You’ve got to appreciate Diaz’s gesture – to alienate/linguistically shut out a large portion of one’s white Western readership is no small act of courage and defiance.

Hats off. On all counts. A bloody good read.

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