Our book group just finished the incredible book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. I’ve set a timer to allot myself ten minutes to talk about this book, and now I hardly know where to begin. I’ll have to do a bulleted list of teasers.
- It is a work of fantasy. It is also hardcore realism – the footnotes chronicle the rule of Trujillo between 1930 and 1961 in the Dominican Republic, which was so awful it’s probably impossible for most people to get through. This reality is transformed into fantasy, through Junot Diaz’s discussion of a curse called “fukú” and its counterspell “zafa,” and through his strong narrative voice, his gallows humor, his underlying love of the people whose lives he chronicles.
- Oscar Wao as a character won me over. He exists in the intersection of oppressions – he is a Dominican immigrant / refugee in the U.S. and also a nerd and overweight. The Dominicans in his community won’t acknowledge him as their own because he is a nerd. The nerds are embarrassed because he’s overweight. And yet . . . he’s wondrous. Alas, I don’t have an hour to explain why. Except to mention that Diaz has performed an act of powerful zafa to make white geekdom claim a Dominican as their own.
- The book uses three or more languages: New Jersey English, Dominican Spanish, and geek language (especially Tolkein & D&D). Not too many readers will have a handle on all three, which means no matter who reads it is going to be lost to some extent, and will just have to get over it.
I am somewhat bemused by the quote on the back of the book from The New York Times Book Review: “Like Raymond Carver, [he] wrings the heart with finely calibrated restraint.”
Firstly, I would not call his writing “restraint.” One of my fellow bookgroupers was disturbed by how loud his voice was, whereas I, being secretly a loud person myself, loved it.
And secondly, I was amused to see a loud work of fantasy described in terms of a minimalist author. An example of how the literary world, confronted with a genre text, tries to assimilate it.