On The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

27Jan09

In which The Gay Recluse ponders Junot Diaz and the purpose of novels.

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Today we finished The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. For obv reasons — namely, the book won every award last year — our expectations were high, and but for the most part were met. In case we’re only the second-to-last person to read TBWLoOW, we’ll mention that it features an intense and zany “mash-up” (or pomo) style of high/low-culture prose that reverberates with everything from street slang (in English and Spanish) to eighties goth to Middle Earth and Dune, all of which Diaz employs with great dexterity to describe three generations of a family as they first suffer under the exceedingly heinous dictator Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and then — or at least those who survive — flee to New Jersey and in some cases, Washington Heights (i.e., home of yours truly).

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The book is necessarily long and the scope epic, filled with big and even operatic gestures of love and violence and redemption. As a rule, the women are hot and strong-willed and beautiful, i.e., they have ginormous tits and J-Lo asses and like to fuck (a lot), and the men — except for poor Oscar, who is too nerdy to get any action (although he continually longs for it) — are only too willing to oblige (and then some).  This lust for life — both literal and not — trumps any other concern in the narrative (political, historical, self-preservation, etc.) and gives the book a sweetness that ultimately saved it for us a few times when we were like: Ok bro, we get it: you’re clearly the master of this hyper-nerd/street-tuff melange, but can you just stfu and relax/reflect for a few pages?!

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Part of our discomfort (though it never rose above the admittedly mild) stemmed from a slight dissonance we felt between the Dominican “culture” we — as long-term Wahi residents — know and the x-l/comic-book version that Diaz offers up with such gusto. Although Diaz certainly sheds a lot of light onto the (srsly fucked up) Dominican history of the 20th century and how that can manifest itself in a single family, we never felt that he completely captured the true despondence and bleak melancholy that clings to the streets of Washington Heights, or what we tend to view as the flip-side of the happy-go-luck-macho-men-who-whistle-at-the-girlz-on-Broadway vibe (which he captured perfectly). For this reason, the book at times felt oddly sanatized and perhaps even a lil stereotypical in its presentation of the “immigrant experience,” to the extent that it allows book buyers (namely, lit chix and fggts like us if we didn’t know better) to “appreciate” the horror without ever really getting anyone’s hands dirty. (You might even say that TBWLoOW is the literary version of the Broadway musical hit we’ve all heard so much about.) This raises far more (unanswerable) questions about the function of a novel (i.e., truth versus entertainment) than it does about Diaz or TBWLoOW (and for the record, we would raise much the same issues w/r/t Middlesex, which this book resembles very closely in both structure and spirit, if not tone).

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We think everyone should read this book, and then come spend a year or two in the Heights, to form your own opinion! In our case, as much as we enjoyed the spectacle of the book, we also felt a little wistful by the end as we imagined reading a novel by say, Junot Diaz’s granddaughter, who no longer succumbs to superficial gestures of optimism (and conformity), but explores a more nuanced thread of pessimism common to the outcasts and (artistic) destroyers who have always been our true saints.

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3 Responses to “On The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”

  1. 1 ephemerist

    Interesting. I too just finished the book (for, gulp, “book club” where I’m the only geigh amongst married young(ish) moms from the outer boroughs who like to drank, so the discussion for this one should be fun) and thought it did skew towards entertainment, It was certainly a unique and singular reading experience. Did it gloss over the grime and lingering despair of that particular Washington Heights experience? Prolly, though stopping short at times of being Runyonesque (rather, I suppose, what Damon Runyon would have written had he been Dominican and living in the Heights in the latter half of the twentieth century). But yeah, I was happy to find those heaps of awards lavished on the book were not unearned.

  2. I read this really great essay that talked about “cabinet of wonders” writers, which included Zadie Smith and DF Wallace, which was ultimately critical of that dancing so hard capaciousness. You got the feeling that after awhile that it was a distraction from some deeper quieter emotional exploration. I know the author personally and I haven’t read the book because I know I’m just going to use it as a gloss for what I know about him or as a bitchy jealous exercise of an unpublished writer looking for “tells” in the work of a greatly recognized talent. But I know that this high low culture and comic book divigating are the reasons that people decided they like or don’t like the book.

  3. Maybe it was more Paterson than WaHi…or maybe that ‘true despondence and bleak melancholy that clings to the streets’ is an aspect of some of the streets up here, but not all. Young homebody ghettonerds like Oscar, ( and myself and Junot?) prob don’t read that melancholy into our situation as strongly as those looking from the outside in might guess. Even when our noses were out of WEB OF SPIDER-MAN #87 or Asimov and we were exposed to the grime, noise and the tigueres … well these books were proof there were other things. So what I’m saying is that I’m glad Junot didn’t make this that kind of story. And anyway we got a taste of a living situation that calls for more genuine despair than even 80s WaHi, life in the last years of El Jefe.


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