To be honest, I can't think of that much to say about Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, that I didn't already write in last December's post on Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex. Replace Greek-Americans with Dominican-Americans, hermaphroditism with obesity, and references to classic Greek tragedy with references to sci-fi books and television shows, and you have pretty much transformed the one book into the other in four moves or less. Which is not to say that this is a bad example of the genre I like to call the Modern Family Epic. It's just that Lev Grossman's claim, on the back cover of my copy, that Oscar Wao is "an immigrant-family saga for people who don't read immigrant-family sagas" seems to me seven words too long: Díaz's book is par for the immigrant-family-saga course as far as I'm concerned.
If, unlike me, you gravitate toward this kind of story, I would recommend Oscar Wao. It's got everything fans of the genre no doubt look forward to: the multiple generations of a single family, stretching back to the Old Country and forward to the New; the flashbacks and flash-forwards which simultaneously reveal past and present mirrored storylines; the magical-realist touch of visions repeated over the generations and a family curse in which the reader can choose either to believe or not; the more-or-less explicit agenda of educating mainstream Americans about the political history of a country that doesn't make it into our textbooks. None of which are inherent negatives. I would never argue, for example, that mainstream Americans are not in need of some education about the history of other countries, particularly ones we've invaded multiple times and then proceeded to forget all about. But the combination of these elements together in a single piece of fiction became ubiquitous sometime between Cien años de solidad and Midnight's Children, and although I do love a few examples of the genre, this one offers nothing in particular to distinguish it from the herd.
Re-reading my Middlesex post, though, I do realize that the Díaz is less egregious than the Eugenides. It's leaner, for one thing. It does not attempt to sustain an epic tone for 600 pages, can even have a laugh at itself. Díaz has more respect for his readers' cognitive abilities than Eugenides for his, despite the intentional and deeply annoying overuse of footnotes to deliver history lessons to the assumed mainstream American reader. (It's true: am not on board with the postmodern footnote-o-philia that David Foster Wallace seems to have laid on the literary scene. And no, I have not read Infinite Jest, for this reason among several.) Most welcome of all, there is not the same ungodly level of coincidence and repetition in Díaz's novel, although the cane fields, the Faceless Man, and the Golden Mongoose do reappear at frequent intervals.
So too, the narrative voice is more engaging—although my feelings about said voice are mixed. A sample, before I go on:
Anywhere else his triple-zero batting average with the ladies might have passed without comment, but this is a Dominican kid we're talking about, in a Dominican family: dude was supposed to have Atomic Level G, was supposed to be pulling in the bitches with both hands. Everybody noticed his lack of game and because they were Dominican everybody talked about it. His tío Rudolfo (only recently released from his last and final bit in the Justice and now living in their house on Main Street) was especially generous in his tutelage. Listen, palomo: you have to grab a muchacha, y metéselo. That will take care of everything. Start with a fea. Coje that fea y metéselo! Tío Rudolfo had four kids with three different women so the nigger was without doubt the family's resident metéselo expert.
OK, so I think this passage is funny. Engaging. I laughed at all the parts I was supposed to, and even felt good about my ability to recognize some basic Spanish profanity. I appreciated Díaz's ability to combine a sharp evocation of life in the oppressed Dominican diaspora with a critique of the oppressive gender politics that prevail in same. But, two things. One: all the folks calling this prose "fresh" and "street-smart"? I feel extremely uncomfortable about that for reasons I'm having trouble isolating. I guess I just didn't find the overall book "fresh" at all. Competent, yes; a page-turner, perhaps; but essentially I found it to be a re-working of a decades-old set of genre conventions, a book whose only innovation is the occasional Spanglish phrase and a few "bitch"es or "nigger"s thrown into the mix. To good effect, don't get me wrong! The words are used effectively. But more than that is necessary before I start busting out with phrases like "one of contemporary fiction's most distinctive and irresistible new voices" (Michiko Kakutani). And a little voice in my head is asking whether this is all the innovation the mainstream wants: a set of comforting tropes, dressed up with a little cussing and "urban slang" to pass itself off as shiny and new, while still hewing predictably to genre norms.
That Oscar Wao fails to live up to overblown hype is hardly Díaz's fault. He didn't write the stuff! There's another issue with the narrative voice, though, which is that it should technically be "narrative voices," and yet it is not. The narrative is a slow reveal: it first appears to be third-person, but we gradually realize it is actually first-person, primarily from the perspective of a sometime-boyfriend of Oscar's loving sister Lola. However, certain chapters are narrated first-person from Lola's perspective, and the voice in those chapters sounds largely identical to that in her boyfriend's sections. To wit:
It was like the stupidest thing I ever did. [...] I got a job selling french fries on the boardwalk, and between the hot oil and the cat piss I couldn't smell anything else. On my days off I would drink with Aldo, or I would sit on the sand dressed in all black and try to write in my journal, which I was sure would form the foundation for a utopian society after we blew ourselves into radioactive kibble. Sometimes other boys would walk up to me and would throw lines at me like, Who fuckin' died? What's with your hair? They would sit down next to me in the sand. You a good-looking girl, you should be in a bikini. Why, so you can rape me? Jesus Christ, one of them said, jumping to his feet, what the hell is wrong with you?
Although I admired Oscar Wao for navigating a middle path between the everyman approach of some immigrant fiction (Anzia Yezierska's The Bread Givers, for example) and the quirk-fests of books like Middlesex, it did occur to me that the voice itself may play the everyman role here; that Díaz may be creating a "Dominican voice" that, logically enough, is shared by many of his Dominican characters. (Tellingly, Oscar, who does not speak like this, is often taunted by people who don't believe he's really Dominican.) Even so, it seems like an odd decision: laying so much emphasis on a memorable voice, only to dilute that voice by giving it to multiple characters.
And I suppose that's the essence of my disappointment with Oscar Wao: dilution. Dilution of a narrative voice among too many characters. Dilution of an engaging, mildly experimental style by an overly familiar story arc. And dilution of a depiction of the world outside the American mainstream—existence in the Dominican ghetto—with endless explanations to the mainstream American reader. Unlike Wole Soyinka in Death and the King's Horseman or Mario Vargas Llosa in Conversation in the Cathedral, unlike even such blatantly journalistic novelists as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn in Cancer Ward, Díaz assumes his reader will not only come to his novel with no knowledge of Dominican history, but will also refuse to do any work to get that knowledge. So that The Brief Wondrous History of Oscar Wao must be both primary text and its own built-in Sparks Notes—it seems to be explaining itself to the mainstream more than it is struggling with its internal conflicts or operating according to its own internal logic, more than it is addressing the Dominican community which it depicts. It's a pet peeve, but I have to admit a preference for books that don't fall all over themselves explaining to me what they are doing but just get on and do it.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was this month's selection for the Wolves reading group, suggested by the lovely Claire, who I still adore even though I didn't love this book. :-) Please join us the last weekend of next month for Orhan Pamuk's Snow.