Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Díaz)

The New Yorker does this thing that drives me crazy, where they publish excerpts from soon-to-be-released novels without mentioning that they are excerpts from soon-to-be-released novels. So I read them, occasionally think “Man, that was a good story,” and then four or five months later, when I hear that the writer has a novel out, discover that this “short story” was actually an excerpt from that novel. Ian McEwan’s Saturday (or “Saturday,” as it was presented in the magazine) leaps to mind. So does Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (or “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”).

But although I might wish they gave some little indication when what they’re publishing might have three or four hundred more pages to it lying around somewhere, it’s difficult to fault them on Oscar Wao. They published the excerpt in 2000, four years after Díaz’s excellent debut story collection Drown—and now here’s the novel, published seven years after that. So it’s been a while. Fortunately, all that time seems to have been well spent, because this is a first-rate book.

Narrated by Yunior, an ultra-male, girl-chasing Dominican American (although with hidden corners of nerdery), the story revolves around a cursed Dominican American family and both the life they have in the United States and the ties they still have back in the Dominican Republic. Although the focus initially seems to be on Oscar—a nerd’s nerd, a virgin’s virgin, unable both to stop himself from falling in love with unattainable women and to get those women to fall in love with him—one of the main pleasures of the book is the way it continually opens up, drawing back, turning to different characters, incorporating lengthy footnotes on the history of the Dominican Republic under the dictator Trujillo, who both seems to lurk at the edges of every scene and is central to the fukú curse that sits at the story’s center. It moves back first to a lengthy section on Oscar’s mother, and then back again, later, to her own parents—an upper-class family ruined by Trujillo, her sisters dead, herself left orphaned for years as a young child before being rescued by her aunt.

The narrative voice is a slangy mix of street talk, uncountable allusions to other books (mainly sci-fi and fantasy), and Spanish. The Spanish was certainly the most frustrating part of the book, because although some of it was clearly incidental, other parts seemed hugely important—and online translators can only tell you so much, and don’t do well at all with the idiomatic speech Díaz uses so heavily. It helps me a little bit to have Google tell me that, in its opinion, Tú ta llorando por una muchacha means “You ta crying for a girl”; less so to have Coño, pero tú sí eres fea return “Jesus, but you do you are ugly.”

“I don’t write enough,” Díaz admits in a Powell’s interview (in response to the weirdly job-interviewish question “What do you consider your greatest weakness as a writer?”). I hope I don’t have to wait eleven years for another book, but hey, if that’s what he needs to produce a terrific novel like this, I’ll happily see him in 2018. (And Junot, I’ll see if I can learn some Spanish by then.)

1 comment:

Beth said...

Loved your post. I'm reading Oscar now. I just told my husband I want to learn Spanish. I am crazy about the book!