Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

I got hooked on Junot Díaz after hearing him read How to Date a Brown Girl (Black girl, White Girl, or Halfie) on The New Yorker Fiction podcast (which is, by the way, a must-have 'cast). His latest novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer this year, and I nominated it for my book club.

I don't want to give much of the plot away, so I won't write too much about the specifics, because you (by which I mean everyone) really should read it. I thought it was nothing short of remarkable, especially in how Díaz narrates the story. The narrative voice changes several times throughout the novel, and, I have to tell you, Diaz is just an absolute genius at this. I mean, he's a total rockstar when it comes to language. Here's a passage near the beginning that hooked me but good:
It was so hard to believe what was happening that Oscar really couldn't take it seriously. The whole time the movie--Manhunter--was on, he kept expecting niggers to jump out with cameras and scream, Surprise! Boy, he said, trying to remain on her map, this is some movie. Ana nodded; she smelled of some perfume he could not name, and when she pressed close the heat off her body was vertiginous.

The narrative voice, the voice of a "ghetto" teenager full of slang and delicious wit and sexuality uses the word "vertiginous" and then puts it in italics just to let you know he's used it? Mamí, that guy can write a fuckin' book!

Díaz also integrates a lot of Spanish words and phrases. That was fun for me, because I've studied Spanish, and I could easily translate most of it myself. But, there's also a lot of slang, and idioms aren't really something you learn in school. Especially swear words and variations on "fuck". So, it wasn't just a challenge for me but quite a challenge for my usual translation tools as well. I've heard read a little bit of criticism of the mixture of Spanish and English, but I love nothing better than coming across a word I've never read before. It's like, just when you think you've eaten everything - you go to a restaurant and there's something on the menu you've never had before! Who wouldn't want that?

However, if you don't feel like translating the text, it's not really necessary - Diaz writes in such a way that, contextually, you know what's being said. Take this sentence, for example, about Oscar's abusive mother: She would hit us anywhere, in front of anyone, always free with the chanclas and the correa, but now with her cancer there's not much she can do anymore. You don't have to know that chanclas are a type of shoe or a correa is a belt; she's just hitting them with something.

I heard a terrific interview with Díaz on Fresh Air in which he explains that the challenges of the book (the language, the various extremely nerdy references) parallel the experience of learning to read, which (I'm paraphrasing) is a group experience. When you're learning to read, all the time you come across a word you don't know - you go to your mom, you go to your teacher, and together you figure out what it means. And, it's so true about this book - quite a few times I had to check with a certain husband about a comic book or LOtR reference; I called up on one of my Spanish-speaking friends to check on my translation (Yes, it means 'fuck'. What are you reading, you dirty girl?).

In this way, the reader not only reads about the immigrant experience, but actually experiences it! By being placed in a position of interpreting so many things you will be (let me assure you) unfamiliar with, you'll get a glimpse of what it's like to be an immigrant, dealing with linguistic and cultural elements outside your realm of experience, at the same time, the experience of learning to read (which for me, and I'm sure all book lovers, was an incredible, empowering discovery!) is mirrored.

Friend D also pointed out at the book club meeting that Díaz's method of writing about abuse and torture is done in such a way that the reader's sympathies are naturally on the side of the victim, rather than from the perspective of the perpetrator, which I thought was a rather brilliant observation. He also said something about Lacan, but I seem to have forgotten due to several glasses of wine and the general uproar at the mention of "Lacanian" anything. (Perhaps he will enlighten in comments?)

I'll be reading this book again very soon and then sending it to the west coast for my sister's book club. I'm sure they'll love it. I'd recommend it to just about anyone, but especially to folks who love reading about the immigrant experience.


KHM said...

you know what? This blog needs "add it to my Wishlist" buttons---I'm sure there's an Amazon widget or something... it would save me a step or two...

Sounds great!

Anonymous said...

What I was saying was a sort of primitive, feeble interpretation of Lacanian thought in looking at Diaz's book. There was something in there about "liberating the unconscious" which as I understand- is the goal of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Anyway, this triggered a short drunken ramble about the split that happened -as Oscar saw it- in the canefields with Oscar's mother. This split, I suggested, mirrored the Lacanian split of the mother/child unit and left Oscar, in particular, alienated and seeking to recover from that alienation: thus his desperate search for a female half and the absolute necessity of his stand in the return at canefields, for love.
However, it's possible that Diaz is telling us at the end of the book, that this didn't work because he's not going back to the true start of the alienation- the grandfather's losing gambit and downfall of family (and ergo, the loss of the father's name, and the beginning of the "bel of alienation"). This would also explain the repeated "your father was a doctor" mantra- perhaps this was a ward against the fuku? as well as the surreal experiences of Oscar and Beli, when they're actually unconscious in the canefield. If any of that makes any sense.
Did I mention I was drunk?

E. L. Fay said...

Hey thanks!

Don't worry - I take a long time to respond to emails too. I have pretty much perfected the art of procrastination. I even wrote a fifteen-page paper and did all the research for it in one day back in college (I wish I was still there).

(After The Tropic of Cancer, I think I really could use a feminist book. Thanks for the recommendation. The Sailor from Gibraltar is another great read.)

E. L. Fay said...

This book sounds interesting too. I haven't read much Hispanic-American literature (other than Isabel Allende, whose novels start to sound alike after awhile), although I do enjoy Mario Vargas Llosa. I love unique narrative voices - solid prose is always a must, IMHO.