The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This 2007 novel was published during my second year of graduate school, and you’d have thought Christ returned to earth. Renowned as a short-story master for a decade, Díaz had come through with an ample novel, really three novels in one: an immigrant American bildungsroman, a Caribbean magical realist family saga, and—the newest element—a nerd culture cri de coeur bristling with references to fantasy fiction, anime, role-playing games, and comic books. The novel immediately went onto every syllabus from Intro to Lit to Seminar in Advanced Semiotics.
For my part, I skimmed it, threw it across the room, and refused to have anything to do with it. I took the identity-politics aspect of the novel, the my-grandmother-was-magical multiculturalism, by then a literary cliché, to be a thin veneer over its flattening gentrification of the fringe aspects of popular culture it annexed. The emotional impetus behind my response was in part no doubt personal.
My people might have come from Europe, a difference I don’t deny makes a difference; but I could still tell you about my paternal great-grandfather’s flight after a barroom killing in Lucca to Argentina, where he lived into old age and was trampled to death by a bull on the pampas; about my maternal grandparents spending their adolescence hiding out in the hills and eating dogs to survive when the Nazis occupied Pizzoferrato in winter; and about the village fortune-teller my mother’s mother consulted before she left for good, who informed her she would die in America at age 92 (she made it to 91 and six months, close enough for me); and about my immigrant mother’s beauty shop and all the old women’s stories I heard there; and didn’t I grow up in a pile of comic books and science-fiction novels too, immersed in Superman and Batman, Heinlein and Bradbury, Moore and Gaiman?
Which is to say that I thought and even now think I knew something about the immigrant experience, about magical realism, and about nerd culture; yet in my middle adolescence I took on a different set of artistic models, I left behind childish things, and in early adulthood I resented writers like Díaz—Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem come under the same heading—for what I judged to be their retailing of a by-then superannuated “ethnic” aesthetic (maybe radical when Malamud or Morrison first essayed it but no longer) tricked-out with “genre” coloration for an audience of credulous tourist-critics who didn’t at that time know DC from Marvel. Surely fiction should be more universal than that, I thought as a young fogey—a difference best captured in Pound’s famous review of Dubliners, where he favorably compares Joyce to the Irish Revivalists:
It is surprising that Mr. Joyce is Irish. One is so tired of the Irish or “Celtic” imagination (or “phantasy” as I think they now call it) flopping about. Mr. Joyce does not flop about. He defines. He is not an institution for the promotion of Irish peasant industries. He accepts an international standard of prose writing and lives up to it.
My censure, however harsh and premature, did prove prescient. In retrospect, is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao not an almost painfully Obama-era novel, with its coalition-of-the-ascendant diversity seamlessly wedded to an incipiently technocratic nerdism, as if they were one and the same? No wonder, then, that Díaz was greeted in the literary and academic worlds almost as rapturously as Obama himself.
So why revisit old Oscar now? Partially, there’s the motive to see if hyped-up novels can stand the passing of even a decade or two (I think of the late literary blogger D. G. Myers’s Dizikes Rule: “My teacher John Dizikes once told me that he never read a novel until it was at least ten years old”).
Then there’s the question of Díaz’s own status. Like many progressive hopes, he didn’t survive the Trump epoch. A series of #metoo allegations dimmed his star, perhaps permanently. I have no intention of settling that controversy here, nor any ability to do so. In my understanding, at least two of the allegations proved dubious as alleged, and an investigation by MIT, where he teaches, cleared him of wrongdoing, on the one hand. On the other hand, I can easily imagine that his behavior at the height of his fame in the then-libertine milieu of 2000s cultural liberalism might have looked more morally questionable in 2010s retrospect—or even at the time, albeit in ways not as culturally visible or sanctioned. I’d still read him even if he were guilty of the worst, however, just as I read Kipling, Pound, Yeats, Eliot, Burroughs, Mailer, and the rest of the whole sick crew of Bluebeards and bigots comprising what we call the canon.
Whatever the merit of the charges against the author, his name lately resurfaced in another literary controversy, the one engulfing author Alex Perez’s incendiary interview with the literary journal Hobart (I wrote about the conflagration here). Perez invoked Díaz as a victim of the upper-middle-class white female hegemony in publishing and academe, a regime that in the guise of political progress unremittingly censors working-class and male perspectives, and even the voices of non-white authors who don’t toe the left-liberal party line.
Ironically, in alloying multiculturalism to technocracy, Díaz might have helped to forge the very weapon later wielded against him. It wouldn’t be the first time, either. As his biographer recently reported, no less a luminary of left-liberal identity politics than Edward Said grew so offended when his own argumentative tactics were turned back on him—a black female scholar stood up at a conference and rebuked him for having cited no black women in his lecture—that he struck up a lively correspondence with provocatrice Camille Paglia and began privately grumbling about how political correctness had gotten out of hand. Progress is the hungriest of gods. It may be that an author, however progressive, who hopes for his work to survive must also hope that it eventually falls into the appreciative hands of a conservative. The conservative’s impulse to conserve rather than to discard is right there in the name.
But all of the above is sociology, and, as James Baldwin in his own young-fogey days reminded us, “literature and sociology are not one and the same; it is impossible to discuss them as if they were.” As literature, then, how has The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao weathered the last decade and a half? First, it is, as I said at the start, wildly heterogeneous, hybrid, filled to bursting, several different novels crowded into 335 pages. It’s impossible not to admire the ambition of the gesture, especially in our current moment when such ambition is out of fashion.
The postcolonial magical-realist “Third World” novel and the immigrant comic-realist American novel get packed tightly into the same volume: Díaz tells the tragicomic life story of Oscar de León, a Dominican-American nerd, in Paterson, New Jersey, from the 1970s to the 1990s, even as he also narrates Oscar’s family history, the story of how his grandfather and mother suffered under Trujillo’s 1930-1961 dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Down through the generations, in a reprise of the family curses in One Hundred Years of Solitude and Midnight’s Children, motifs of doomed love, suicidal heroism, cynical betrayals, and lethal run-ins with power will recur.
Despite two puzzling interludes given in the voice of Oscar’s admirable sister Lola, all of these stories are told by Lola’s boyfriend and Oscar’s sometime friend Yunior. Yunior, who also appears in Díaz’s celebrated short stories and seems to be the author’s autobiographical double, comes from Oscar’s milieu and shares his literary ambitions. But unlike Oscar, who wants to be “the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien,” Yunior inclines aesthetically to a more gritty and vernacular realism. He is also an athlete, in contrast to the corpulent Oscar; moreover, again unlike the involuntarily celibate Oscar, Yunior is successful with women, this to a fault, his frequent infidelity and his betrayal of Lola being a motif in the novel, and one that, however plausibly couched as masculine self-critique, did Díaz’s reputation no favors in the #metoo moment. In other words, Yunior is Oscar’s anti-type, a jock rather than a nerd, a literary writer rather than a genre writer. Díaz encapsulates the distance between them in the scene, set during their shared time at Rutgers, when Oscar acquires his nickname:
Halloween he made the mistake of dressing up as Doctor Who, was real proud of his outfit too. When I saw him on Easton, with two other writing-section clowns, I couldn’t believe how much he looked like that fat homo Oscar Wilde, and I told him so. You look just like him, which was bad news for Oscar, because Melvin said, Oscar Wao, quién es Oscar Wao, and that was it, all of us started calling him that: Hey, Wao, what you doing? Wao, you want to get your feet off my chair?
Again, this is all very Obama era, the moment of Scott Pilgrim in the theater and The Big Bang Theory on TV and Tumblr fandoms online, when nerdism acquired its sheen of de facto queerness—not that Díaz does much with this trope besides the admittedly enviable pun on Wilde, nor does he explore how the nerd’s collector mentality coincides or conflicts with Wildean aestheticism. In the novel’s preface, Yunior reflects on his attempt to synthesize their divergent aesthetics by writing a saga about the fukú americanus, the New World curse of generational oppression that goes back to Columbus’s landing on Santo Domingo and the start of the African slave trade:
I’m not entirely sure Oscar would have liked this designation. Fukú story. He was a hardcore sci-fi and fantasy man, believed that that was the kind of story we were all living in. He’d ask: What more sci-fi than the Santo Domingo? What more fantasy than the Antilles?
But now that I know how it all turns out, I have to ask, in turn: What more fukú?
The double move here—at once writing the harshest of political realities as fantasy and revealing the politics underlying all fantastical fiction—marks Díaz’s renewal of the magical-realist argument initiated by Alejo Carpentier that magic just is realism in the Americas, with their revolutions and racial terrors and miscegenated cultures. Moreover, the profane and colloquial pun—fukú as the ultimate “fuck you”—characterizes Yunior’s voice. Like a latter-day Huck Finn or Augie March, he plays in multiple registers of English, including Spanglish, hip-hop slang, nerd argot, academic theory, and lyrical narrative.
This style, more than plot or character, proves to be the book’s main event. Yunior’s voice carries the novel, which is often more narrated, summarized, and even ruminated than dramatized—no surprise given the story’s expansive time scale and the book’s relative brevity. And the style is most effective where the novel is least narrative. Aping David Foster Wallace, Díaz provides footnotes to his own text, often hectoring lessons about Caribbean history for the know-nothing American—I also resented this high-handed gesture on my first skim; though now it strikes me more poignantly that he seems to have expected few Dominicans in his audience—which occasionally flower into a provocative essayism, as here:
What is it with Dictators and Writers, anyway? Since before the infamous Caesar-Ovid war they’ve had beef. Like the Fantastic Four and Galactus, like the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, like the Teen Titans and Deathstroke, Foreman and Ali, Morrison and Crouch, Sammy and Sergio, they seemed destined to be eternally linked in the Halls of Battle. Rushdie claims that tyrants and scribblers are natural antagonists, but I think that’s too simple; it lets writers off pretty easy. Dictators, in my opinion, just know competition when they see it. Same with writers. Like, after all, recognizes like.
First, it’s a good question, and I respect Yunior-Díaz’s refusal to settle for Rushdie’s self-congratulating answer, his acknowledgement of the novelist’s will-to-power and presumptuous arrogation of the authority to define what’s real. Second, this passage demonstrates the pleasure of Díaz’s allusiveness for anyone who can follow him from Ovid to Galactus to Stanley Crouch, even if this allusiveness is more in the vein of pat-yourself-on-the-back-for-spotting-them fan-service Easter eggs than meaningful reanimations of tradition. The whole gesture belongs not to literary culture but to fandom, which prizes empty knowingness over what Eliot called laboring for tradition.
Accordingly, at the novel’s most dramatic moments, Yunior’s style is a disaster. Yunior’s voice and his unremitting references crowd out the scene until we can’t hear or see anything but the trivia he foists on us. The passages set in the Dominican Republic in the mid-20th-century especially suffer from this lapse. Ideally, Díaz might have contrasted Yunior’s postmodern American vernacular in the late-20th-century chapters with a more traditional tale-teller’s voice à la Carpentier or García Márquez or Morrison to lend the magical-realist flashbacks their proper gravity. Instead, we get this, in the moment when Oscar’s oft-abused mother has been tortured and left for dead in a cane field after a doomed love affair with a gangster connected to the regime:
All hope was gone, but then, True Believers, like the Hand of the Ancestors themselves, a miracle. Just as our girl was set to disappear across that event horizon, just as the cold of obliteration was stealing up her legs, she found in herself one last reservoir of strength: her Cabral magis—and all she had to do was realize that once again she’d been tricked, once again she’d been played, by the Gangster, by Santo Domingo, by her own dumb needs, to ignite it. Like Superman in Dark Knight Returns, who drained from an entire jungle the photonic energy he needed to survive Coldbringer, so did our Beli resolve out of her anger her own survival. In other words, her coraje saved her life.
But her coraje is leached of all dignity when it is forced to share space with the ersatz heroism of Stan Lee’s commercial address to his fan army and Frank Miller’s comic-book apocalypse. When Díaz mutes these verbal hijinks, the novel breathes with more authentic emotion; it’s a relief when Yunior turns the narrative over to Lola, and Díaz inhabits this formidably intelligent young punk’s character with impressive credibility. For all the novel’s obtrusive comic-book references, the only comic book that obviously influenced it is Love and Rockets; I only wish Jaime Hernandez’s modulation from the wacky science-fiction of that comic’s early issues to the almost Chekhovian realism of the later in his Maggie and Hopey stories had been more of a warning to Díaz against zaniness for its own sake.
All in all, then, a typical mixed achievement of a first novel, with the cracks and strains no doubt more evident 15 years later than on the book’s first appearance, when Díaz met the moment too perfectly. Writers who do that burn brightly for a season, but then they disappear with the moment. There is enough talent and ambition here, however, especially in comparison with the “wan little husks of ‘auto fiction’” that afflict us today, to hope that Díaz hasn’t made his last attempt to sum the world in words. Having learned the hard way that espousing a moralized politics just makes a writer a target of his own moralism, he might also remember that footnote about literature’s war with politics for imaginative authority over the real.