The Importance of Being Oscar Wao
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Faber and Faber, 2008 352 pages £12.99 ISBN: 978-0571179558
While the publishing industry in Britain manages to conjure a bestselling literary sensation every few years or so, in America it is naturally an annual event, and this year undoubtedly belongs to Junot Díaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Aloft on the wings of unanimous critical acclaim, Díaz recently became the first Dominican–and only the second Latino-American–to scoop the Pulitzer, a species of literary prize quite unknown on these shores, in that it has a reliable history of recognising enduring fiction. It would be quite unfair, of course, to review the hype rather than the book, but it is instructive to note the way in which so much of the praise heaped on Díaz has sounded the same note: he is ‘a powerful new voice’ (Powell’s Books); ‘an ironic, confiding, exuberant voice’ (Kirkus Reviews); ‘one of contemporary fiction’s most distinctive and irresistible new voices’ (New York Times). There has been a great deal of harping on ‘voice’ amongst reviewers, and in order to explain Oscar Wao’s significance—because it is, I believe, a significant novel—I would like to consider a few senses of the word in relation to contemporary American fiction.
One sense of ‘voice’ that we should forbear to inflict on Díaz, and which I suspect some of his reviewers had in mind, is that of a representative of his particular sociopolitical subculture. He is not quite the first Dominican author to gain an American readership–Julia Alvarez went before him–but his Pulitzer award signals his entry to the mainstream proper, with all attendant privileges like huge sales and having to answer inane questions on The Charlie Rose Show. Allowing that one happy incidental effect of Díaz’s success may be increased exposure for a vastly underrepresented immigrant group, to honour him as a ‘voice’ in this sense is to imply a view of American literature as a great pluralistic confab, a house of representatives where each community’s experience is articulated by its own anointed delegate. Whatever the imperfections of American democracy, it is a category error to expect American literature to redress them. And quite apart from the a priori objection that good fiction first of all searches out the specific as against the general example, the starting point for Oscar Wao’s drama is its eponymous hero’s crippling, mortifying atypicality.
Oscar isn’t ‘one of those Domincan cats everybody’s always going on about–he wasn’t no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock’. In fact, he’s a fat, sci-fi-loving nerd who seems destined to disprove the seeming law of nature that no Dominican male can die a virgin. Increasingly alienated from his contemporaries at Rutgers University, Oscar develops an obsession with the ancient Dominican legend of fukú, a curse which is said to wreak havoc on all who fall under its influence. Meanwhile, the narrative arcs backwards, tracing the upheavals faced by his mother, Beli, and his grandfather, Abelard, whose encounters with a murderous Dominican dictatorship are chilling enough to support Oscar’s suspicions of a family curse.
Given all this, it would be understandable had Díaz written a long howl of intergenerational anguish, but the impression that arises on putting down Oscar Wao is of a warmth and humour which belie its dark materials. The reason for this is found in another, more literary sense of ‘voice’: the prose in Oscar Wao is a marvellous olio of Spanglish that ranks alongside any of the recent experiments in American prose. Listen:
There are those alive who claim that La Fea had actually been a pro herself in the time before the rise of her brother [Joaquín Balaguer, President of the Dominican Republic], but that seems to be more calumny than anything, like saying that Balaguer fathered a dozen illegtimiate children and then used the pueblo’s money to hush it up—wait, that’s true, but probably not the other—shit, who can keep track of what’s true and what’s false in a country as baká as ours—what is known is that the time before her brother’s rise had made her una mujer bien fuerte y bien cruel; she was no pendeja and ate girls like Beli like they were pan de agua—if this was Dickens she’d have to run a brothel—but wait, she did run brothels!
For all its colloquial swagger, this is a highly stylised piece of writing, with its comic missteps and reversals, sprinklings of Spanish jostling smartass canonical quips and shrugging expletives, all in a sentence the momentum of which is carried by a slipstream of hyphens. It is the voice of Yunior, a homeboy machista and Oscar’s sometime college roommate, whom Díaz reprises from his 1996 short-story collection Drown, and who often addresses the reader as though he were shooting the breeze on a street corner in New Jersey. But, by an act of narrative sleight-of-hand, we do not realise there’s a first-person behind this voice until some way into the novel. The surprise is calculated and central to Díaz’s purpose, because by revealing the presence of another personality written into the margins of the text, he radically undermines the authority of the narrative—a move with obvious significance in a book partly about a dictatorship, but which has implications for its American context too.
Like many of his contemporaries, Díaz is suspicious of the near-hegemony of the monoglot voice that, with the admitted exceptions of Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield, used to form the bedrock of English-language prose. His solution is to unveil a narrator who is not merely unreliable but who, for many readers, will be occasionally incomprehensible. Yunior is apt to address his readers as ‘nigger’, to season the prose with sci-fi arcana and untranslated Spanish (sometimes extending to full sentences) — to make, in other words, few concessions to the kind of artificial, standardised rhetoric that we normally think of as ‘literary’. It thus marks the distance travelled in the politics of American narrative voice since, say, The Adventures of Augie March (1953), which signalled the throat clearing of a different, newly confident subculture. When Bellow’s protagonist opened his account by announcing, ‘I am an American, Chicago born’, he was brassily declaring his right of access to the cultural centre ground, his right to interpret America to itself. Oscar Wao, meanwhile, bespeaks a society fragmented into a thousand overlapping cultures, comfortable with difference and distrustful of centricity. Its linguistic world is one in which we are all migrants, with all the excitement and occasional confusion that condition entails.
This distance can be measured in the way Díaz handles cultural references. While Augie March displays an almost maniacal desire to prove a mastery of cultural authorities on the part of both author and protagonist, Oscar Wao’s allusions are scattershot and irreverent: ‘The sexy isthmus of her waist alone could have launched a thousand yolas,’ says Yunior of one character, and there are some jocose nods to Flaubert, Conrad, Proust and, yes, Bellow. The book’s title refers to the Hemingway story ‘The Short Happy Life of Franic Macomber’, and contains a joke about miscommunication: ‘Oscar Wao’, the protagonist’s nickname, is ‘Oscar Wilde’ rendered in a Domincan accent. None of these references suggests a thorough engagement with the traditions they invoke—nor are they bothered to. Díaz’s deepest mines of cultural reference, in fact, are those of sci-fi and fantasy. Where Augie March would reach for Herodotus or Hegel to illuminate character, Yunior heads for the world of comic books: ‘Like Superman in Dark Knight Returns, who drained from an entire jungle the photonic energy he needed to survive Coldbringer, so did our Beli resolve out of her anger her own survival.’ These are more than just knowing lowbrow hijinx: Oscar Wao eloquently suggests that the immigrant experience is often so vertiginously strange that it can only be understood in terms of eccentric genre forms.
At the outset of the book, Yunior notes that if the influence of fukú can be discerned throughout Oscar’s family history, then perhaps his narrative can be seen as a zafa, that is, a counterspell with power to unloose fukú’s hold. Yunior seems to have in mind something akin to a ‘talking cure’, the idea in psychoanalysis that catharsis can be induced in the trauma victim by enabling the victim to express his or her experience vocally. Yunior turns out to be a historian of Oscar’s family, his self-appointed task to redeem its generational trauma by giving it a voice, and, in doing so, to deal with a related trauma of his own.
Place Oscar Wao beside a couple of other American literary bestsellers of recent years—Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated (2002), and Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000)—and something of a mini-genre begins to emerge. In all three, an intimate, confiding first-person voice makes significant claims for the power of storytelling to redeem an originating trauma (whether bereavement, genocide, or tyranny). There is an affinity here with the culture of the talk show–which is, of course, another form of the talking cure where a few million viewers, channelled by the host, fulfil the role of the analyst (except, with characteristic American inclusiveness, in this version the catharsis is not restricted to the analysand but is intended for everyone). Oscar Wao shares with Oprah an expressivist faith in sounding out pain, where the final release is affecting in proportion to its dreadfulness. ‘Negro, please’, says Yunior at one point, ‘this ain’t a fucking comic book’. But when the rhetoric of self-expression lapses into pure hyperbole, Oscar Wao is just that: wonderfully, hilariously, but unremittingly overstated. Its voice is so compelling that when, teen-flick-style, the loser implausibly gets the girl in the end, you can barely bring yourself to demur. And yet, for my part, I hope we’re not in danger of forgetting that literature can be more than just a talking cure.