November 7, 2007

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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Junot Díaz, Cornell MFA, wrote the novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which is a not-so brief, wondrous example of the power of a multi-layered narrative, intricate and nuanced on every one of its levels. At its most personal and limited level, this is a story of Oscar, Dominican fatboy, unlucky-in-love forever-nerd, living his life in New Jersey without great success.
But even Oscar knows that this story is not about him. Surrounding him are the lives of his sister and his mother who are testaments to the strength and beauty of their family’s women, the incredible pain of diaspora, the historical and emotional terror that was the dictator Trujillo, and the almost supernatural cyclical parallelism of pain and redemption.
A minimal knowledge of Spanish and the literary works of J.R.R. Tolkein is desirable for a full experience of this novel, but a pocket dictionary and a DVD of The Lord of the Rings would suffice, possibly to the chagrin of Díaz. What is not necessary is a familiarity with Dominican history; the explanation of the historical context of Trujillo’s dictatorship is the stories of the characters. The tautness with which the horror of his reign is woven into the lives of the characters we are connected to defamiliarizes the dictators we know as historical, abstract concepts and instead shows them and their actions as very living, very real, and very personal.
The novel is ‘written’ by Oscar’s friend Yunior, himself Dominican (as is Díaz) and whose family is very close with Oscar’s. In delving into the history of Oscar’s family, he uncovers for the reader not only their specific past but the spirituality of the island, the home that you can never leave. We learn that the pain of diaspora is the aching voice inside you that inexplicably calls you back to where you are from, even if it is not really there.
Part of, or perhaps the cause of, the family’s cyclical history is the notion of fukú, Opposite fukú is zafa, which can be invoked to try and prevent the destruction of fukú. A continuing argument within the narrative boils down to a battle between pessimism and optimism, and illustrates how easy it is to confuse and how hard it is to distinguish whether it is the fukú that acts, and occasional luck occurs, or the world that happens and zafa that brings us through to safety.
The other worldliness is carried through in the continuing metaphor of the novel which is a comparison of this world to Middle Earth, complete with a cast of witch-kings, ringwraiths, orcs, and more, starring Trujillo as Sauron. While at a few points in the novel the references seem forced, this metaphor is an appropriate lens to show Oscar, nerdboy and sci-fi fan extraordinaire’s view of his own history.
Unfortunately, at some points throughout the book the choppiness and non-linear quality of the narrative is confusing instead of enlightening, and some segments with different narrators are blended unsuccessfully with the rest of the story. However, the narrative thread of the novel is ultimately very strong; when you close the book you will have a complete understanding of the parallelism and beauty, pain and belief that is encompassed in Yunior’s editorship of the story.
The fantastical frame of Tolkein’s world enables the reality of the continuing horrors of tyrannical rule to stand out and confront the reader, while the intensely personal narrative of Oscar’s life serves to illustrate the fact that, individually and globally, each of us must choose; fukú or zafa?