This is the fourteenth in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.
Junot Diaz, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Riverhead Books.
I still remember the first time I read Junot Díaz’s story “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, Or Halfie.” My reaction to it was physical. A few paragraphs in, my arms and legs began to tingle. I could hardly believe that Díaz was writing what he was writing—a minute dissection of how a Latino man alters his behavior depending on the color of the girl he’s trying to seduce—and I was thrilled to see him tackle such a taboo subject with intimacy and panache.
Shortly after it appeared in The New Yorker, “How to Date a Brown Girl…” was republished in Díaz’s first book, a collection of short stories called “Drown.” The volume soon became one of the most celebrated books of 1996. Laconic, funny, and heart-breaking, “Drown” spotlights some of the Latino community’s most difficult issues: namely, its deep veins of homophobia, infidelity, racism, sexism, and casual verbal abuse.
Not only did “Drown” prove that Díaz can handle controversial subjects with a rare level of empathy, it also provided a new vision of poor, young men of color. Most of the book’s stories are set in a rundown New Jersey apartment complex that resembles a public housing project. Yet, contrary to what much of our popular culture would suggest, its characters are neither drug addicts nor gang bangers. They are just young men, numbed by circumstance and haunted by loss.
It’s clear that for Díaz creating such nuanced portraits is a moral imperative. In a 1997 interview with People magazine, the author, who grew up in Section 8 housing, explained that “Drown” “was like a hand of love out to the community. We aren’t just a bunch of crack addicts running around gunning each other down, like people think. There is great beauty and strength. People are surviving.” Drown showed that beauty with all the grace and clarity of a solo violin.
Yet Díaz’s second book bravely left that prose style behind to forge a radically new narrative form. Like “Drown,” “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is set in New Jersey and the Dominican Republic, and it is particularly concerned with the effects of poverty and machismo on young Dominican men. Its central character is an obese, Walter Mitty-ish “GhettoNerd” named Oscar de León, who is addicted to science-fiction. Oscar is an antidote to the clichéd image of the Latin Lothario, yet almost every other character in Wao regards his geeky manner as an unpardonable offence. You’re not Dominican, they tell him over and over again, as if to disown him. The rejection eventually plunges him into despair.
Oscar’s fascination with sci-fi infects the novel’s very style and structure. Wao is studded with allusions to J.R. Tolkien, Alan Moore, and Jack Kirby. The Dominican Republic’s dictator Rafael Trujillo, for example, is described as “our Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator, a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up […] Outstanding accomplishments include: the 1937 genocide against the Haitian and Haitian-Dominican community,” which killed some 30,000 people. Thus, the empathetic realism that Díaz perfected in “Drown” is melded with the wildest sort of comic book fantasy.
To those unfamiliar with the discussions going on within Latin American literature, this melding may look merely like a clever sleight of hand. But Latin American and Latino writers have been working for years to come to grips with the legacy of so-called “magical realism.” Some writers, most notably those published the 1996 anthology “McOndo,” have declared that magical realism is useless to describe the realities of Latin America’s globalized culture. Others, like Roberto Bolaño, have rejected magical realism in favor of its predecessor, surrealism.
“The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” presents a third way. It uses Oscar’s obsession with escapist fiction as a prism through which to understand the history of the Dominican Republic and, in doing so, it suggests that our contemporary experience of politics, and of immigration, can feel as bizarre as any comic book tale. The result is a novel of stunning verbal and emotional range, a novel that ranks among the most original works of fiction that I have ever read.—Marcela Valdes
Marcela Valdes’s review in Bookforum.
Lev Grossman review as #1 in his Time magazine “Top 10 Fiction Books of 2007.”
Susan Straight review in the Los Angeles Times.
Michiko Kakutani review in The New York Times.
Gregg Barrios interview for La Bloga plus review.
Meghan O’Rourke interview in Slate.
Boris Kachka interview in New York Magazine.
Excerpt in The New Yorker.