Junot Díaz received such a rapturous reception for his debut collection of stories, Drown, in 1997 that it must have scared the living daylights out of him. How to follow that? In preference to knocking something out in a year or two, he has ruminated, cogitated and gestated for a decade over his first novel. Would the book have been any different if he hadn’t taken such pains? Posterity will not care, of course, or even remember the slow birth, but for a reader now it’s hard not to have it in mind. Any consideration of the extra-literary aspects of this book can’t ignore the cover (when do I ever?): the US edition is clean and apt, while the UK design, in an unusual break with tradition, is so bad with its primary coloured faux naivety that its awfulness can only be the result of concerted effort. Nobody’s going to be buying this because it looks nice on their shelves. The pressure’s on.
The title of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is presumably a riff on Hemingway’s story ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,’ about a man whose rebirth from cowardice to courage is his downfall, and one could tangentially link this to Díaz’s novel. Despite the title, Oscar de León (the Wao is an accented version of Wilde, which his peers use to mock him) appears only fitfully in the book, in maybe a third of its pages, though it does begin and end with him.
The bulk of the book delves instead into the lives of his sister, his mother and grandparents, all by way of depicting life in the Dominican Republic (DR) and among its diaspora in the US. The shadow behind all their lives is the “portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulatto” Trujillo, the dictator who ruled the DR from 1930 to 1961. Linked to this is the central idea of a curse, or fukú, being upon the world: “it is believed that the arrival of Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fukú on the world, and we’ve all been in the shit ever since.”
It was believed, even in educated circles, that anyone who plotted against Trujillo would incur a fukú most powerful, down to the seventh generation and beyond. If you even thought a bad thing about Trujillo, fuá, a hurricane would sweep your family out to sea, fuá, a boulder would fall out of a clear sky and squash you, fuá, the shrimp you ate today was the cramp that killed you tomorrow.
You can see from this that Díaz is a writer with a love of lists, and his style has the expansive fluency that is familiar in a certain type of American literature. What gives him a novel flavour is his kitchen-sink approach to the language, chucking in everything from foreign languages (and context wasn’t always enough here) to the tropes of sci-fi and comic books. Oscar, you see, is not just an immigrant, but a geek:
Could write in Elvish, could speak Chakobsa, could differentiate between a Slan, a Dorsai, and a Lensman in acute detail, knew more about the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee, and was a role-playing game fanatic. … Couldn’t have passed for normal if he’d wanted to.
This is far from unique – there’s a definite whiff of Salman Rushdie in places, and the sections where Oscar’s grandfather falls foul of Trujillo reminded me of Louis de Bernières’ Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord, where torture and turmoil are made almost seductive by the vigour of the prose – but Díaz as a storyteller has considerable charm that gets him away with a lot. Sometimes there’s a sense that he’s trying to cram too much in: the book tries to be a family saga, a coming-of-age story, and an immigrant account of “the inextinguishable longing for elsewheres.” There is also an annoying number of footnotes in Robert Walser-sized text, detailing the political and cultural history of the Dominican Republic.
One interesting aspect of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is who is telling us the story. This seems to switch, so that at times we are in the hands of an omniscient but personal narrator – “your humble Watcher” – which may be Díaz himself, while at others Oscar’s schoolfriend Yunior takes over, or in one section, a female I struggled to identify. They all bring aspects of themselves to their direct or distanced reports of Oscar, taking us from decades before his birth right up to the ending which is dramatic, but not entirely surprising. Well, it does warn you, as early as the front cover, that his life is going to be brief.