Portrait of the Dominican Nerd as an (Overweight) Young Manby Ben Reichman
Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead Books, 2008)
Not a memoir, not particularly self-consciously postmodern or ironic: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the story of Oscar “Wao” de León, an overweight, socially inept fan of science fiction and fantasy who dreams of becoming the “Dominican Tolkien.” Oscar is born in the Dominican Republic under the brutal totalitarian dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, and later moves with his family to Paterson, New Jersey. Díaz tells the story and history of the complex de León family informally, conversationally, in a quilt-like narrative of Spanglish patchwork, full of references to Lord of the Rings, footnotes explaining the history of the Dominican Republic, asides on the politics of the “Trujillato,” and stories from Dominican folklore. Díaz’s narrative takes frequent jumps in time, place, and point of view, and does not apologize for it. He melds erudition and pop culture together with ease, opening the book with a quote from the comic book series The Fantastic Four, and another from Derek Walcott.
Díaz’s narrative is not only multi-layered and intellectually engaging, but also full of emotional, visceral power. By the end of the story, you will know Oscar’s family as your own, with each member of the intrepid clan standing out distinctly and indelibly in your memory: Oscar’s unflagging aunt La Inca; his sister, the wise, strong Lola; his enigmatic, bitter mother, Hypatía, or Beli. Díaz’s tone is always casual, no matter how bizarre or disturbing the story gets: “On the ride there Oscar tried to find his voice but couldn’t. He was too shook. (In situations like these he had always assumed his secret hero would emerge and snap necks, à la Jim Kelly, but clearly his secret hero was out having some pie.)” The passages in which Díaz discusses Dominican history and folklore make the reader feel like the student of a brilliant and uniquely engaging college professor, which Díaz no doubt actually is. This comes out particularly in Díaz’s early discussions of the traditional Dominican notion of the “fukú,” or supernatural curse: “No matter what its name or provenance, it is believed that the arrival of Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fukú on the world, and we’ve all been in the shit ever since.”
Díaz’s story is one of minorities and immigrants, in every sense of these words. As the narrative twists around and complicates, the reader feels an initial sense of vertigo, followed by recognition of Díaz’s unifying motif. It is as though we have zoomed out from a disorientating view of the Earth’s surface to reveal that, from far away, the Earth looks identical to the thousands of other stars and planets that surround it. This is a story of science fiction and fantasy, out of place in the larger world of popular culture, as it is the story of a hopelessly maladroit teenager living out of place in the culture of the Dominican Republic. It is also the story of a family of immigrants living out of place in New Jersey, the story of an oppressed political movement living out of place under the Trujillato, and the story of Dominicans residing on a tiny island that makes them all minorities or immigrants in relation to the rest of the world.
Díaz’s protagonist is a disaffected youth whose experiences are inextricably intertwined with a specific time, place, political milieu, and pop-cultural environment. And yet, Oscar’s story is a fairy tale in the classical sense, one of journeys, beauties, and beasts; of finding one’s place in a confusing world; of falls and rises—all in the space of a Dominican ghetto in New Jersey. It just so happens that, for Oscar, this world has a bit of Middle Earth mixed in too. From his jazzy Def Poetry Jam-style opening to his celebratory closing declarations, Díaz takes us through the highs and the lows of a teenage life, from Mordor back to Hobbiton, knocking us down and lifting us back up again.