There are few emerging writers who are able to completely defy literary convention. This is a good thing. Were every new novel written as experimentalist or precedent setting we would have no firm notion of what the avant-garde really is.
Junot Díaz’s debut and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is not an avant-garde piece of fiction. That is to say, it remains in the realm of convention, notably that of the so-called ‘postmodern’ or ‘post 1945’ tradition. But what Díaz does with that tradition is nothing short of groundbreaking.
“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is itself something misleading. The story concerns not just one life but also the life of his ancestry from the 1930-61 reign of the Dominican Republic tyrant Rafael Trujillo up until the mid 1990’s.
What sets this story in motion and maintains much of the events that proceed is the fukú, or “a curse or doom or some kind,” as we are told early on. This idea of fukú remains dimly clad for much of the story although we are meant to understanding the curse as accounting for the incredible bad luck which plagues both Oscar and his family throughout the story.
So just who is Oscar Wao? A good-natured but morbidly obese young man who role-plays by day and dreams of becoming the “Dominican Tolkien” by night. His life is anything but wondrous; most of his story concerns his pseudo-odyssey of trying to get laid. When he isn’t churning our reams of science fiction or dreaming about the love he feels for the girls (to be precise, every girl) that he comes into contact with.
We learn all of this from the quick, hard-talk of Yunior: a beautiful Dominican boy who once dated Oscar’s sister but couldn’t help cheating on her with every other girl in sight. But Yunior, writing the story ten years after the “brief, wondrous life” of his protagonist, has come a long way. He’s no longer the hard-fucking, drug-doing jock of his heyday, but a reformed scholar and professor of creative writing. He can get to the heart of his subject quicker than a bullet (Johnny Abbey García is footnoted as “one of Trujillo’s most beloved Morgul Lords).” Cloying at first, these David Foster Wallace-esque footnotes provide the story with a sort of colloquial and meticulously examined essay, and make for some laugh-out-loud commentary.
But at the heart of things Díaz’s novel isn’t a political reprimand. It’s a story about a nerd looking for love. How far Díaz manages to stretch this plot does a credit to the author’s inventiveness and boldness. He doesn’t shy away from throwing extended Spanish phrases or the N-word at his readers and because of this, “Oscar Wao” both embraces and fights sentiment with equal poise.
Trujillo can be Sauron and his minions the Ringwraiths and the reader doesn’t see a Hollywood fantasy, but a visceral monster. Similarly, Oscar Wao can preach about love but transcend the role of fat, pitiable dork into that of a hero. When, at the end of his brief, wondrous life, Oscar finally meets his doom, he is able to serve as a martyr to the cause of love, a Dr Manhattan in a world beset by fukú and standoffish girls.
Would it be a cliché to say that Oscar Wao embodies the nerd in all of us? Of course it would be. Díaz certainly makes no bones about telling us how alienating and miserable it is. And yet this life, the one that society tells us to suppress, is what’s most wondrous of all.