Thursday, June 1, 2017


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

Written 4/27/2012

"Wow!" "Wao!"

 "Wao" is a phonetic spelling for "Wilde," along the lines that Mexican comic books talk about the Yunaitesteits (for United States).  Here's the way the book opens:

            They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved;
            that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished
            and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the
            nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles.  Fuku americanus,
            or more colloquially, fukú—generally a curse or a doom of some kind;
            specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World. Also called the
            fuku of the Admiral because he was both its midwife and one of its great
            European victims; despite "discovering" the New World the Admiral
            died miserable and syphilitic, hearing (dique) divine voices.
I liked this book very, very much.  And not the least of its pleasures is its historicizing footnotes, the first of which, on the second page of text, begins:

            For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican
            history: Trujillo, one of the twentieth century's most infamous dictators,
            ruled the Dominican Republic between 1930 and 1961 with an implacable
            ruthless brutality. . . .one of the longest, most damaging U.S.-backed dictatorships
            in the Western Hemisphere.

Diaz sets up the novel to illustrate a fukú, the New World Curse, through the story of a New Jersey Dominican, Oscar De Leon, who had all the right moves with the muchachas until he was seven years old and then—was it a curse for dropping one little girlfriend at the behest of another?—becomes an undate-able awkward obese nerd.  Committed to "the Genres," which I take it means Sci-Fi and Fantasy literature, Comic books and Cartoons, and role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons.  The narrator is another Dominican man, a "player," who has a crush on Oscar's sister Lola and thus volunteers to be Oscar's roommate and keep an eye on him.  He intends to play pal just long enough to win Lola over, but the connection turns out to be more than "for fun for awhile." 

Oscar's story pulls in his whole family history.  His sister Lola's story starts when her mother, Beli, calls her into the bathroom to evaluate a knot in her breast "just beneath her skin, tight and secret as a plot," another fukú, but to go back to the beginning of Oscar's family curse. the story goes back in time to 1944 or so when Oscar's long-lost aunt in the Dominican Republic was preparing to go to college.  She was a beautiful, socially accomplished girl, but dictator  Rafael Trujillo had a taste for girls—the droit de seigneur being one of his favorite indulgences. The girl's father, a physician, tries tragically to conceal her from Trujillo, and is consequently emprisoned brutally while his wife was expecting a third child.  In 1946, after more than a year of torture had utterly undone and unmanned him, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison.  The two teen-aged daughters and wife Soccoro all died "accidentally" in the next few years.  The newly born infant, a third daughter, was a social jinx and was sold into "criada" service.  (Remember Cosette at the Thenardiers' in Les Miz?)  This daughter is Beli, the mother of Oscar and Lola. She is rescued by a family cousin, "La Inca," whom Oscar and Lola come to know as their Abuela (grandmother).  And this history—of life under Trujillo—is ultimately the heart of the book, but the story also portrays Dominican emigrants of the Diaspora as non-tragic, powerful, vital human beings.

The events are terrifying but told with linguistic liveliness, which creates a kind of angry ironic distance often enough to make the story more believable or at least 'tolerable'; the narrator's bitter jokes about the cursed history of families destroyed and demoralized in twentieth-century Latin America and the Diaspora rings with slangy Spanglish and Dominican idioms spiced up with a rich sprinkling of Tolkien, Stan Lee and Watchmen.  Its real literary base, however, is Derek Walcott: an epigraph from his "The Schooner: Flight," Stanza 1, "Caragena, adios," captures the mood and the linguistic turn. (I will have an excerpt for the meeting.)  And Walcott's verse follows another introductory quotation from the Fantastic Four (Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, 1966): "Of what importance brief, nameless lives . . . to Galactus??"

The narrator, "Yunior" (Spanish rendering of 'Junior') revels in sexuality, especially of women's bodies, and there are many racy scenes in juicy language.   But women in this story are powerful persons  as well as sexual subjects, subjects who choose and enjoy as well as suffer.  There is no celebration here of cruelty, use, exploitation.  "Yunior" is a womanizer, but finally that is his tragedy and he knows it.  Like most of the characters, he is abused and neglected by parents who inherit the trauma of dictatorship and terrorism.  We want sometimes to believe that surviving victimization creates wisdom and virtue.  It's not true: abuse more often makes monsters of us.  In Yunior's defense he knows he's damaged, and at least he loyally loves Oscar –and sadly, Lola.

I admit this is a book I probably won't loan to teens I work with in juvenile detention, but not because it would shock or harm these girls who have seen more sexual dirt and violence than this bit of prose-fiction.  Maybe they'd feel less schizophrenic and alienated if they could read more things like this, Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, David Foster Wallace, instead of the Post-Rapture fantasy-literature they are fed locally: "good Christian books."

And I won't suggest the book to my local book club, which is essentially mostly made up of women (all Methodists!) in rural Nebraska, most of whom (or many) are retired teachers.  (So I thought and wrote in 2012; after 5 years with them, I have suggested it.--jrice) The language alone is clearly off-limits there, where several expressed a reluctance to "read about sex" when our group began, although they did enjoy Erdrich's The Master Butchers Singing Club, even with Delphine's surprised glimpse of the man she lives with having sex with another man.  It would be interesting to think through problems of acceptable and unacceptable language but not here, not now.  I will just say that stories of Oscar and his family, class, and culture would be artificial and false without the language of sex, drugs and alcohol, for this is the language of tough gutsy people even as these are phenomena in the life of so-called "nice" people too, and language tastes have more to do with class and culture and "niceness" than with value.