Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Binding String: A review of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Junot Diaz has written a novel that ties all readers together. Readers of all ethnicities can be pulled into this fiction and, somehow, everyone can latch onto the string that binds this novel. “Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everybody’s always going on about- he wasn’t no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy… And except for one period early in his life, dude never had much luck with females (how very un-Dominican of him.)” “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz begins with the story of Oscar de Leon, detailing the history of his family, from their Fuku-plagued existence, while providing great detail and background on the history of the Dominican Republic and its Voldermort, Eye of Mordor, Darth Vader tyrant, 30 year dictator, destroyer of all things good, Rafael Trujillo. Diaz’s novel can sometimes feel drawn out, stylistically it’s a brave work of fiction, a novel that is heartfelt, beautiful, crude, crass, and heartbreaking. By the end of the novel, readers are left with a brief viewing of the life of this one Dominican nerd boy, who is desperately searching for love and happiness.
   The novel’s narrative style is unique, shifting from machismo storyteller Yunior, from English to Spanish, ghetto dialect to sci-fi fantasy nerdisms. Yunior tells the story of the De Leon’s, while interjecting a little of his own life story, like when he was roommates with Oscar in college or tells about his failed relationship with Lola, Oscar’s sister. There is also a brief switch of narration, which is effective, when Lola’s tells her tale and then we switch back to Yunior and are introduced with everything Dominican. From the Fuku that has cursed the family. “Anytime a fuku reared its many heads, there was only one way to prevent disaster. Not surprisingly it was a word. Zafa.” Our narrator then proceeds to tell us that this novel was a sort of Zafa (counter curse), by telling Oscar’s story, his families history, speaking about Trujillo and all the misery he inspired, the book spreads its Zafa powers and helps to open the gateway of discussion and healing. Just like Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, the Mariner was forever cursed to tell his tale to anyone he passed, and when he didn’t tell his tale, his heart burned and he was in great pain, reciting his story was the only way to heal.
 Special attention must be paid to craftsmanship of this novel, this fiction is packed with long endnotes, references to everything Dominican, fantasy, and nerdy.  We’re also bombarded with this sometimes humorous, sometimes sad Dominican encyclopedia of a fiction. Then there is Oscar, the brother, son, friend, this portrait of the artist as a young, lonely nerd, but what holds this story together? What kept me enticed, following these really long endnotes and Yunior’s tangents? Oscar and the string. This magical string which allows the reader to latch onto the novel, either through the Dominican history, or references to Caliban, The Watchmen, James Joyce and Ahab. As a reader, you’re connected to the novel, moments when you’re the insider, you understand a Spanish phrase, get a reference to DC/ Marvel comic, pick up on a Lord of the Rings reference, the string is binding.
 The string connected me to Oscar. Oscar’s emotional rawness tied me to the novel. A character who is constantly seeking, striving for more, for better, striving to fit into this world that he’s socially exiled from, a world where he is the outsider. Oscar’s loneliness was evident. Yunior says that, “inside, he was in a world of hurt.”  Oscar’s hurt drove the novel, steering readers into the depth of his pain. A character willing to die for love, grasping onto to anything that resembles love. You might know someone like Oscar, someone you root for, a person you hope will get some good luck and things will change for him or maybe you’re Oscar. Still in love with someone who has left you behind or you are someone still trying to graduate from school, finding you’re footing in the world, or maybe you’re trying to shake off that “high-level Fuku” that has you by the ovaries. Oscar is an intellectual geek and his brief passages in the novel are affecting and heartbreaking. There is a passage in the book when Oscar finally begins to understand what true love is comprised of, it isn’t about infatuation, or sex, “it was the little intimacies that he’d never in his whole life anticipated, like combing her hair or getting her underwear off the line or watching her walk naked to the bathroom or the way she would suddenly sit on his lap and put her face into his neck.”

Not once, did I not feel this nudging pang within myself. Something sizzled inside my chest, sparking inside me like a light saber. Rays of light illuminating my lungs, heart, stomach and liver, hoping to dear God that Oscar’s life escaped the brief and became long-lasting, enduring, undying, anything but brief. Oscar’s life is brief. Wondrous? Maybe it is, “So this is what everybody’s always talking about! Diablo! If only I’d known. The beauty! The beauty!” (Oscar De Leon Wao, my fellow nerd boy.)

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