Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Apocalyptic daydreams, an ancestral curse, and the horrific regime of Trujillo -- "the dictatingest dictator who ever dictated" -- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a story of diaspora. From the Dominican Republic to New Jersey, author Junot Diaz follows the members of the fated Cabral family, mostly told in the voice of Yunior, a fellow Dominican immigrant. Yunior's narration is uncensored, as if the reader is one of his ghetto buddies. He sounds like Diaz's alter ego in this excerpt about fuku, a curse or doom:

"A couple weeks ago, while I was finishing this book, I posted the thread fuku on the DR forum, just out of curiosity. These days I'm nerdy like that. The talkback blew the fuck up. You should see how many responses I've gotten. They just keep coming in. And not just from Domos. The Puertorocks want to talk about fufus, and the Haitians have some shit just like it. There are a zillion of these fuku stories. Even my mother, who almost never talks about Santo Domingo, has started sharing hers with me."

Yunior was Oscar De Leon's dorm mate in college, as a favour to Oscar's older sister, Lola. Oscar was a lonely geek who weighed 307 pounds. He was obsessed with reading, and writing, science fiction and fantasy. Lola worried about Oscar's coping skills.

"I wasn't as old-school as I am now, just real fucking dumb, assumed keeping an eye on somebody like Oscar wouldn't be no Herculean chore. I mean, shit, I was a weight lifter, picked up bigger fucking piles than him every damn day.
You can start the laugh track anytime you want.
He seemed like the same to me. Still massive -- Biggie Smalls minus the smalls -- and still lost. Still writing ten, fifteen, twenty pages a day. Still obsessed with his fanboy madness. Do you know what sign fool put up on our dorm door? Speak, friend, and enter. In fucking Elvish! (Please don't ask me how I knew this. Please.) When I saw that I said: De Leon, you gotta be kidding. Elvish?
Actually, he coughed, it's Sindarin."

The story moves back and forth in time and place, occasionally switching over to a woman's voice. Audiobook narrators Jonathan Davis and Staci Snell take turns performing in the Penguin edition [5 hours], handling the intermingled Spanish words smoothly. (Davis grew up in San Juan.) I'll be seeing Junot Diaz at the Vancouver Writers Fest later this month, and I must be prepared that his voice will not be that of Jonathan Davis. (Nor of Yunior, for that matter). I'm curious, however, to hear if his conversation style is similar to that in his writing. His storytelling has impressed me immensely. Here's one last excerpt:

"The family claims the first sign [of the curse] was that Abelard's third and final daughter, given the light early on in her father's capsulization, was born black. And not just any kind of black. But black black -- kongoblack, shangoblack, kaliblack, zapoteblack, rekhablack -- and no amount of fancy Dominican racial legerdemain was going to obscure the fact. That's the kind of culture I belong to: people took their child's black complexion as an ill omen."

I enjoyed the literary references throughout. Beli Cabral, Oscar and Lola's mother, is the black daughter mentioned above. She landed a scholarship at one of the best schools in her town in the Dominican Republic, but she had no friends there. "It wasn't like In the Time of the Butterflies, where a kindly Mirabal Sister steps up and befriends the poor scholarship student. No Miranda here: everybody shunned her." (Note to self: you must really get around to reading Julia Alvarez's novel about the sisters who resisted Trujillo and were murdered.)

I look forward now to Diaz's newest book, a collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her, which are also narrated in the voice of Yunior. Diaz was awarded a MacArthur fellowship earlier this week.

Readalikes: Diaz himself suggested one, by titling one chapter The Gangster We Are All Looking For; Le Thi Diem Thuy's award-winning first person narrative, shifting in time and place, is about a Vietnamese immigrant to America. The Dew Breaker (Edwidge Danticat) is about the Duvalier regime in Haiti. Fault Lines (Nancy Huston) moves backwards in time (as Diaz does in the first part) loosely linking characters in the Jewish diaspora. And for another account of survival under cruel dictatorship, The Orphan Master's Son (Adam Johnson).

No comments: