Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Importance of Being Oscar Wao

Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a gratifying book for several reasons, but the language is the key (I'll get to the passion in a moment). It is written in a variant of "Spanglish," a broad term that denotes any mixing of English and Spanish by bilingual speakers. By and large these have been native Spanish speakers in the English-speaking world, although now it is hard to miss the increasing presence of Spanish in North American English. Sometimes Spanglish is a matter of switching from one language to another; at committee meetings here at the University of Puerto Rico, some topics (grant proposals, say) are naturally handled in English, others (e.g., faculty politics) are obviously to be discussed in Spanish. I have heard students conversing in English and recounting conversations in Spanish: "And so I said, 'Que dices mi amor?' and then she said, 'tu me oyes,'" and so on. More commonly Spanglish drops words, phrases and idioms from one language into conversation in the other, as Diaz does.

In the present book it is thick enough that someone with no Spanish will have some trouble understanding everything that is being said, but for those who can handle it it's a fun read ("Oscar Wao" is how one of Yunior's Dominican buddies pronounces "Oscar Wilde"). Spanglish enjoys the benefit of being able to choose the word, phrase, or idiom from either language that is most appropriate for whatever is being expressed. It is particularly rich in profanity, an advantage that is not lost on Diaz, who writes an idiomatic, personal prose that is designed to convey the "street."

And what is this tragicomic novel about? It is about multiple generations of a Dominican family, from their professional-class origins in Santo Domingo in the early part of the century through their ruination during the Trujillo dictatorship up to their struggling incarnation in contemporary New Jersey, where their talents are slowly bringing them back from not-so-genteel poverty (Tio Rudolpho is a dope fiend, but Oscar and Yunior are aspiring writers and teachers, of English of course). It is a Murakami-like celebration of Anglo fantasy pop culture ("Anglo" rather than "American" because Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is one of the touchstones of the book).

Oscar and Yunior (who narrates) are devotees of fantasy and science fiction. The references to comic books, role-playing games, science fiction movies and the whole gamut of nerd escapism are as thick as the Spanglish, I think it's a good irony that Diaz's unconcern about whether readers will be able to follow him is what makes this a text that might endure. Oscar, the obese, obsessive, permanent-virgin protagonist, finds solace in escape into fantasy. Fantasy has become, more or less, his whole life, and his ultimate downfall. The dragons, monsters, and aliens of the fantasy world are comforting compared to the horrific reality of what one person can do to another in the real world.

Which brings us to the real topic of this novel, which is the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo over the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. The thesis of the book is that Trujillo was such a powerful force of evil that he has placed a "fuku" (a kind of santeria curse) over Oscar's family, over the DR and all Dominicans, maybe even over the United States. This is not a standard-issue indictment of the depredations suffered by Dominicans at the hands of perfidious yanqui. The evil is home-grown, the pathology is deep inside. Diaz has a burning anger about Trujillo, who he has obviously studied for years (a semi-comic device here is the use of footnotes, emphasizing the idea that we are being educated, a distinctively Caribbean Spanish trope of "telling it like it is").

There is a beef against Vargas Llosa, whose Feast of the Goat (that I enjoyed) is soft on Balaguer among other sins. Good writers are not afraid of taking us to the depths, where some good might be done, and the confrontation with the violence above all of wanton injustice is conveyed here with an unflinching rage. The combination of violent content with comic form is effective and deeply satisfying; I think this is the single biggest reason Diaz has received such critical acclaim (by the way the book jacket really does overdo things a bit. Publishers, I observe, are notably desperate these days to sell books).

Also worth mentioning is the treatment of sex and sexuality. Diaz walks a line here: on the one hand he buys into the stereotype of the Caribbean Latino as endlessly and irresistibly oversexed, a distracting theme also for the Cubans. On the other he has split himself into two halves, the hopeless onanistic Oscar, who falls in love with strange women on the bus, and on the other hand the "normal" Yunior, who can't hold his relationship together because he can't keep it in his pants for ten hours. And as in contemporary Cuban literature, so in Diaz sex is both an expression of the power of the powerless and simply something for the disaffected to do.

Diaz's first novel Drown received notices even more glowing than those for Oscar Wao; I'm going to Amazon a copy and add it to the Stack.

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