Monday, July 28, 2008

Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Every so often - though not all that often once childhood is over, I think - you read a book which you know is going to affect your mental landscape forever. This, for me, is such a book. It's the story of Oscar de Leon, a New Jersey ghetto nerd struggling with the curse imposed by his family's history of entanglement with the cruel Dominican regime. It's a heartbreaking yet uplifting story, and the thing which will imprint it for me is the voice.

The overall narrative voice is that of Oscar's university friend Yunior (though two sections are narrated by Lola, Oscar's sister and ex-girlfriend to Yunior). It's a wonderful voice, colloquial, feisty and combative yet generous and humane. And direct, addressing the reader on familiar terms. Here's Yunior describing an episode from Oscar's teenage years (a passage which holds a subtle prefiguring of Oscar's destiny):
Those were some fucking lonely weeks when all he had were his games, his books, and his words. So now I have a hermit for a son, his mother complained bitterly. At night, unable to sleep, he watched a lot of bad TV, became obsessed with two movies in particular: Zardoz (which he'd seen with his uncle before they put him away for the second time) and Virus (the Japanese end-of-the-world movie with the hot chick from Romeo and Juliet). Virus especially he could not watch to the end without crying, the Japanese hero arriving at the South Pole base, having walked from Washington, D.C., down the whole spine of the Andes, for the woman of his dreams. I've been working on my fifth novel, he told the boys when they asked about his absences. It's amazing.

See? What did I tell you? Mr Collegeboy.
There's a special kind of authenticity about this voice. While it conveys a very particular character - Yunior, with his own shortcomings and blindspots as well as his warm heart - one suspects, as with the voices in Diaz's story collection Drown, that it is not too far removed from the author's own voice: there's an overriding tone and an energy which inform the sections related by both Yunior and Lola. The impression of authenticity is further reinforced by the piecemeal and non-linear way the story unfolds, as Yunior weaves together the information he has gathered from the de Leon family members, provides a retrospective introduction and footnotes (in his own inimitable style) on the historical background and lays bare the workings of his written tale:
Footnote 15: A favourite hangout of Trujillo's, my mother tells me when the manuscript is almost complete.
Indeed, the book itself is dedicated to Elizabeth de Leon. But it would be far too reductive to say that what Diaz has achieved here is a magical and explosive mix of historical fact and imagination: this book is something more magnificant than that. It goes beyond fact, it goes beyond fiction: it's a true voice, it's the searing dream and deep new knowledge that stays with you for good.

Oh, and I cried buckets.

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