After Don Delillo's 9/11 novel, Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the most anticipated American novel of 2007. When it arrived, sweating from its verbal exertions, it didn't disappoint. The novel's prose style is entrancing; a couple of times I nearly missed my train stop because I was so engrossed. The narrative discourse is thick with Spanish Caribbean slang, and it's nastier and more cutting in the scenes set in Paterson, NJ, where the novel's eponymous hero grows up. Díaz is clearly showing off his command of colloquial Spanish--there's something oddly bookish about the breadth of the colloquialisms, for they seem more than one person would be able to use in ordinary speech--but it's not hard to get the gist of what the narrator is saying. However, I can just see some poor undergraduates forty or fifty years in the future groaning over being assigned the thick annotated edition of Oscar Wao.
The novel is narrated by Yunior, Oscar's roommate at Rutgers and occasional boyfriend of his sister Lola. Yunior's amorous attention constantly wanders, but his focus on Oscar's family is unwavering, his verbal energy unflagging. His most common rhetorical strategy is the wild exaggeration of orality followed by deflation, often with reference to patriarchal authority. Here is Yunior describing Oscar's mother Beli when she's in her alluring youth:
[S]he was La Tetua Suprema: her tetas were globes so implausibly titanic they made generous souls pity their bearer and drove every straight male in their vicinity to reevaluate his sorry life. She had the Breasts of Lubia (35DD). And what about the that supersonic culo that could tear words right out of niggers' mouths, pull windows from out their motherfucking frames? A culo que jalaba mas que una junta de buey. Dios mio!
Later on, Yunior points out that Beli's first serious lover, an older Dominican man known only as the Gangster, was "[m]ore like a third base umpire than an Avatar of her Glorious Future." The panting reference to Beli's enormous breasts is typical. Nearly every major character has a freakish body: Oscar is grossly fat, his sister Lola has abnormally long legs. The men have enormous penises; the Gangster's other name is Jack Ripio, as Beli painfully finds out the first time they have sex.
The freakishly attractive or freakishly repulsive body is a mark of fukú, one of the novel's more perplexing concepts. Fukú is a curse peculiar to Dominicans, and at times it seems to refer only to bad luck in love, and other times to the bad biological fate of being born Dominican. The curse is brought down on Oscar and his family when Oscar's grandfather refuses to lend his daughter to Trujillo, the prodigiously lecherous dictator of the Dominican Republic.
Pretty much every adventure in the Dominican Republic ends in a beating in a sugar cane field by one of Trujillo's thugs. The ancient, almost mythical violence of the island nation represents the family's past, while Paterson, imagined here as a one camp in a North Jersey gulag of squabbling immigrants, represents the eternal present. The traditional middle-class American gateway to the future, a college education, fails to do much for either Oscar or Yunior. The future exists only in the form of the science fiction novels with which Oscar is obsessed. Small wonder that Oscar's final, self-destructive act is straight out of Tristan and Isolde.
Oscar Wao is, in many ways, a love letter to the Dominican Republic. The characters' native country is like a first love: at first every small bit of beauty moves the heart, every fault is charming, but eventually the limits of the love object become clear, and there's a regretful but inevitable parting. Yunior and Lola settle in the United States to live out their desultory maturity. Only the romantically hapless Oscar continues to pursue his first love, and he is destroyed.