The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

…either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.

-Derek Walcott, ‘The Schooner Flight

This is a novel I’d been looking forward to ever since I read Diaz’s second book of short stories This Is How You Lose Her (a heartbreaking and beautifully written collection about love and loss). As I’ve noted in previous posts, living in Cambodia often makes it difficult (and expensive) to get good books. However, on a recent trip home to Australia I discovered a copy of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao on a table in a Goulburn $2 shop. Just what a Pulitzer Prize winning novel was doing buried beneath a pile of romances I’ll never know. Was my stumbling across it merely happy accident, or was it fate? In the spirit of this novel I think I’ll choose to believe the latter.

I was completely swept away by this book. It is beautifully written, complicated, and totally different to anything I’ve read before. To be honest, I found myself more than a little intimidated by The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It led me to think about my own writing and to feel (in the face of Diaz’s masterpiece) that a novel is (for me, at least) an impossible task. However, after reading more about the book and about Diaz I came to realise that while writing is ridiculously hard, it is supposed to feel this way. And that the agony is, in the end, worth it.

Oscar Wao is Junot Diaz’s second book (he published a collection of short stories titled Drown in 1996) and his first novel. (Did I mention that he won the Pulitzer Prize? For a first novel?) Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey in the United States. Oscar Wao criss-crosses back and forth between both of these places.

How to describe The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a book that is so many different things at once? Simply put, it is a sprawling family drama centred on Oscar de Leon, an overweight comic book nerd and a wannabe Tolkien, and narrated by Yunior, an omniscient voice who also appears in many of Diaz’s short stories. Oscar is a romantic, but a flailing one. The ongoing journey of the novel – and the thread that ties all the others together – is Oscar’s quest to get laid, at least once, before he dies. From this simple core Oscar Wao stretches out into all kinds of fantastic and faraway places. This is not just a novel about Oscar – it is also about his mother, his sister, his grandfather, and the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo that terrorised the Dominican Republic for 31 years. This is a novel about how larger histories affect individual lives. As Diaz comments in this interview with Slate, “Oscar is utterly unaware of this history and yet also dominated by it.” Oscar cannot escape from his larger past – as the aptly chosen poem by Derek Walcott (printed at the beginning of the novel) indicates, he is either nobody, or a nation.

Oscar Wao is not always easy to read. It jumps around in time, is full of long footnotes that disrupt the flow of the story, and uses lots of Spanish words and phrases (which, to an Australian who learned Japanese and German in school, can be pretty baffling). However the fact that Oscar Wao is such a good book makes up for these difficulties. Instead of being frustrated I wanted to read more carefully in order to understand. I also loved all of the characters and was invested in their lives. There are some fantastically strong women in this book – Lola, Oscar’s sister, and Beli, his mother – but I found myself most drawn to Oscar and Yunior. I love Oscar’s voice and the way he uses comic book and Lord of the Rings analogies (according to Diaz in Slate, Trujillo was the obvious Dark Lord of the novel). And Yunior, in spite of (or perhaps because of?) his inability to stop hurting the women he loves, is intelligent, funny, and sympathetic.

What really amazes me about Oscar Wao, however, is its structure. The novel is divided into three parts, is told from the perspectives of five characters, and spans nearly six decades. Diaz notes that “the book was supposed to take the shape of an archipelago; it was supposed to be a textual Caribbean”, and it does feel that way. Sprawling and disconnected, and yet somehow still part of a unified whole.

It was realising how carefully and beautifully Diaz had structured Oscar Wao that got me despairing about my own writing. How could I possibly create something even close to Diaz’s intricate, sophisticated, and yet still so readable story? But while trying to figure out how to write about Oscar Wao I stumbled across these two interviews with Diaz from Slate and Bookslut in which he talks a lot about writing, and how difficult it is for him:

[It is] in that process of writing what I’m not supposed to be writing that I find my way to what I am supposed to be writing … [my emphasis]

This is a tiring and demoralising way to go about writing. But I don’t know any other approach.

This is exactly how I feel (I have since pasted the above quotes over my desk); that most of the time what I write is complete shit and a waste of time, and why bother? But without the shit and the time wasting I will never get to anything good. And this is why writing is so fucking difficult. But – as a novel as wondrous as Oscar Wao demonstrates – it can also be so fucking worth it. Diaz is no doubt exceptionally talented, but it is heartening to know that he feels as intimidated by the task of writing as I do. I highly recommend The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to everyone, but especially to other writers. It is a reminder of just how good words – when placed in the right order – can be.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was first published in 2007. Junot Diaz is the author of the short story collections Drown (1996) and This Is How You Lose Her (2012). He currently teaches writing at MIT.  

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