March 26, 2008

Junot Diaz's - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

I read about Junot Diaz sometime last year in the New York Times, and it was his Dominican heritage that caught my attention. Over the years I've befriended numerous Dominican immigrants who have always impressed me with their joie de vive at the same time surprised me with their machismo that they flaunt with such proud abandon. It was my dichotomous reaction to Dominicans that got me interested in reading Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I was curious to know what a Dominican writer had to say about the immigrant experience; something I'd read and heard extensively about from my Dominican friends, but never from a Dominican writer of Mr. Diaz's fame and caliber. Junot Diaz is perhaps the first ever Dominican writer to have hit the literary scene in such a big way with his debut novel, and is recognized as a contemporary writer with a very distinct writing style.

Diaz came to the US as a seven year old carrying memories of his homeland that he vividly brings alive in his writings. In this novel I was hoping to find a voice that was Diaz'z own. However, neither the womanizer narrator's nor the male protagonist's voice could be pinned down as the voice of Diaz. That may have been Diaz's strategy to have the reader guessing which of these two Dominican males was the typical one. It could also be that Diaz was trying to prove a point here that not all Dominican males are Yuniors, the narrator, who though madly in love with Lola, Oscar's sister, keeps his libido in full gear with other women. But then neither is Oscar the typical either as the overweight nerdy and serious romantic who is constantly involved in serious matters of the heart, unfortunately with women he can never have. Diaz has woven a web so wily where the reader hears the chronicles of a serious lovelorn Oscar from Yunior, a glib 'n easy college roommate of Oscar who is shocked by Oscar's depth of emotion and says he'd "never in... life met a Dominican like him...”

Diaz has produced a very humorous and gripping novel by providing a story that is both endearing and shocking. Oscar, the hero, and his encounters with love and relationships in general make for some humorous and touching reads. Meanwhile, the tapestry against which Oscar is presented is not only vast but also grim and sordid, and it has the capacity to shock. Oscar's story goes back two generations and across two countries to introduce us to his grandparents, the eminent Carbajals, and to his not so honorable parents, Belicia an unwed mother and his father a criminal in cahouts with Trujillo, one of the cruelest dictators in History. With an illustrious family tree such as this it is no surprise that the life of Oscar is both brief and wondrous, and it is to Mr. Diaz's credit that he spun into this 'wondrous' story a historic depth and meaning without alarming his reader. He kept the reader in easy suspended disbelief with his fluid sometimes raunchy language rife with colloquial spattering and identifiable contemporary references; even when he was taking the reader some eighty years back into the history of a small island once called Hispaniola.

Pure coincidence that this may be, but just before reading this novel, I read Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace which also spans across three generations and which includes a coming of age story of an individual within an immigrant family. What a contrast the two reading experiences proved to be! Where I finished Junot Diaz's novel over a weekend and in two sittings, Ghosh's novel took me all of three weeks and uncountable sittings to come to that last page. Storytelling is not an easy art, and writing is perhaps even more difficult, as the writer gets no immediate feedback like the story teller does, through eye contact and body language. Mr Diaz apparently sensed the pulse of his audience because The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao proved a riveting and delightful read.

There is one question though that I would pose to Mr. Diaz if I ever got a chance: how does a novel like this bring him closer to his goal of 'community activism'? What will make this delectable piece of literature irresistible to the majority of fellow Dominican Americans who
"never thought writing was interesting or viable"?

23 comments:

Nandini said...

Oscar reminds me of Florentino Aziza

Id it is said...

nandi,
You're right there are similarities, except that Florentino gets his lady love, even if its after some 40+ years.

Coffee-Drinking Woman said...

hmmm, every time I come here, I find something else to add to my "must read" list.

Thank you!

Eshuneutics said...

He has been quiet for such a long time. I remember reading his first collection of short stories. Then, nothing... This book has received very good reviews in the UK. Hope you're fine.

Id it is said...

eshu,
You're right about Diaz lying low for quite a while after his 'Drown' which was a collection of short stories which were also received rather well; that's perhaps what made people wonder.
His writing style is very effusive and it has the reader on a roll no matter how somber the subject he's dealing with; it could be about peddling drugs to 13 year olds and yet Diaz could have the reader lapping it all up, even with a wry grin of enjoyment. Did you get to listen to his interview on NPR? I just put the link onto the post; it's the one at the very end.
Always a pleasure to hear from you.

AVIANA said...

What will make this delectable piece of literature irresistible to the majority of fellow Dominican Americans who
"never thought writing was interesting or viable"?

for him to be successful and go back to the dominican community...write more pieces that speak to the dominican american experience possibly...

how are you? :)

nandi23 said...

Want to know something weird, I had no idea who he was so I Googled him and found out that he has my birthday! Maybe thats why I sound like him :P,

What do you think coincidences are?

Lash said...

I couldnt find a copy of Diaz's book here.. But yeah, The glass palace was difficult.. I quit it mid way...

net-net4 said...

Hi Id It Is !

In this post you are impressed by Dominican's joie de vivre...
From my side i' m always impressed by your writings..
I loved the ode to all that's "humain"..

I'm bringing here your last 2 poems you left at my page..
always next to my pictures..

Id it is said...

" Is the silhouette of the hand necessary to the color and shapes that surround it?
Is it in fact the maker,
the creator,
of all the beauty and meaning that is visible around it?
Why is it where it is,
and only as a silhouette?
Is there something I don't read? "
- Id It Is -

Id it is said...
" This time I beat you to it!
No reminders that brought me here...
simply wondering if all's well at your end...has spring made her presence felt in your part of the world...not in mine...I'm still under blankets of snow facing the icy cold ! "
-Id It Is -


:)

AVIANA said...

oh..fyi...i'm part dominican...

Id it is said...

aviana,
Given that you're part Dominican, I'd be curious to know your take on the noveel! Any chance that you may want to read it? Have you read his short stories?

EYE said...

it seems the latino energy seeps into the book:)

Id it is said...

eye,
The Latino energy is rather effusive and endearing too, wouldn't you agree...
It's a great read.

kannan udayarajan said...

hi id..

first time here..:)
and another must read in my to do list..:)



btw what "id it is" stand for?

Id it is said...

Kannan,
Thanks for stopping by.

'id' is ego and thus the name ; after all it's the 'id' or the ego that makes one presuppose that what I write might be of enough interest for another to want to read my ramblings

kannan udayarajan said...

Interesting..so which language is it?

Deb said...

One of the best things about visiting you is how much I learn. You are a teacher at heart.

Raza Rumi said...

Oh sorry
I did not read this earlier..thanks for this piece
am not sure what to read first, your crisp writing or new authors...?

Id it is said...

Raza,
You're kind with words, but i take that as a compliment coming from a writer of your caliber and reach. Thanks.

Lotus Reads said...

I have been very curious about this book ever since it first hit the bookstores so I was super-excited to see your review and to know that you endorse it whole-heartedly. I know next to nothing about the Dominican immigrant experience so this would be a great place to start. Thanks, Id, for another great review, keep 'em coming!

bereweber said...

oh what a great review id
just a couple of days ago i listened on NPR an interview with Junot Diaz! i never heard of this author before, and being a latin immigrant myself in the US i found it rather interesting, but as with many things on the radio, once the interview was over, i sort of forgot about Junot Diaz and his book, now that i read your superb review here, i grow more interested in the book! thank you!! and yes you have a great blog!

here a link to the May 2n interview with Junot Diaz
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90111248

will dig deeper into your book recommendations for sure!

Id it is said...

bereweber,
I hope you get to read this novel because I'm sure you'll enjoy it. Thank you for stopping by.

berenice said...

hi I Me Mine, it's been years since this post and not sure why I got side-tracked on reading this book, I've read many after this, but finally this weekend I bought it... I am on the last pages of Murakami's 1Q84 so by the end of this weekend, I will be reading Oscar Wao :)

thanks again for your wonderful reviews!