Thursday, August 1, 2013

Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
From The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz:
Open quote 

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. Fukú americanus, or more colloquially, fukú -- generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World."

After the jump, my review.

Grade: B-

I tried to dislike The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz. I really tried. What kind of Dominican name is Oscar Wao? "Brief life?" What author telegraphs an important spoiler in the novel's title? "Wondrous life?" Isn't that subjective? Shouldn't the author just tell the story and have the reader decide whether or not it's wondrous?

In the first few chapters, I most definitely didn't find Oscar Wao's life to be wondrous. He's a fat, unhappy dork of a kid from a dysfunctional family of immigrants from the even more dysfunctional, unhappy island of the Dominican Republic under Rafael Trujillo. Díaz leaves Oscar out of his story altogether for long stretches as he tells the family's history of troubles, or fukú, under that gangster dictator. I guess if Oscar is going to have a brief life, Díaz has to fill his novel with other stories.

I knew nothing of Dominican culture or history when I picked up this novel. Díaz's story didn't make me any more likely to visit either Santo Domingo or Patterson, New Jersey, where much of Oscar's small, desperate life plays out. When I started reading I shared the "Jersey malaise" that gripped Oscar's sister Lola. In her it was a desire to be somewhere, anywhere, other than Patterson. For me, it was a desire to be reading about anything other than this unhappy, immigrant family or the Dominican Republic under Trujillo.

Still, the more I read, the more I was drawn into all this history and culture and family tragedy and survival and persistence. By the end, I was hooked. I surrendered to Oscar and Lola and, yes, even fukú, and the stories of what it means to be Dominican. It means fukú is real, there's no use denying it, no use fighting it. Conceding that fact also opens one to the reality of zafa, the counter spell to the curse of fukú. I learned what Lola learned: "If these years have taught me anything it is this: you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in. And that's what I guess these stories are all about."

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