Friday, August 24, 2007

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

The novel of a wannabe writer named Oscar Wao, who is an enormous Dominican with a love of all things superhero (Diaz calls him a ghetto nerd), who, well into his "brief" life, wants desperately to lose his virginity.

Junot Diaz has taken a famously long time (11 years) to come out with his second book (first novel), and it shows the influence of some writers who have hit big in the meanwhile... David Foster Wallace (footnotes, check), Zadie Smith (hyperactive voice, check) (or what James Wood would call hysterical realism--which I happen to like), and Michael Chabon (superheroes, check). But somehow while this is a book that shows its influences, it still feels very much its own (or rather Diaz's own). (I've come to realize my dominant stylistic tic in blogging is the parentheses) (deal with it).

My graduate workshop recently read My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk (perhaps more on that some other time) and Pamuk says that the formula for originality (ah the irony, a formula for originality) is to pair two things that have never been paired before. (sort of resembles the formula of comedy, pair two things that don't go together, interestingly enough). Now while I resist the idea of formula, Pamuk is describing a real pattern. For example, the pairing of literary writers with a popular genre (Phillip Roth and alternate history, Michael Chabon and comic books, Cormac McCarthy and horror, Sherman Alexie and science fiction) has entered candicacy for the hottest new genre, as of late. Anyway... Diaz seems to have found originality not just by pairing two disparate things--immigrant culture and fanboy culture--but by creating the proverbial melting pot of disparate things...

... the most disparate of all being the writer's biography. Or rather the fictional writer's fictional biography (appropriate in the age of the truth in nonfiction debate). I don't know for sure, but would be willing to bet, that Diaz has read that writer's favorite (a fave of mine), Steven Millhauser's novel Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright. Edwin is a child prodigy according to his neighbor and childhood friend Jeffrey, who rescues Edwin's childhood writings from the dustbin of history and makes him a posthumous literary star. Oh, and he kills him, too. But whereas Cartwright finds genius in Mullhouse's writing, Diaz's narrator Yunior seems to find genius in Oscar's past. Oscar is important, because of who and where he came from, not because of his writing, which is essentially lost in the mail for all of eternity. A postcolonial biography, I suppose.

Diaz says that his first book, Drown, which is typically referred to as a short story collection was intended to be something in between a novel and a story collection. But Drown seems to me exactly a story collection, wheras Oscar Wao, which is billed as a novel, is much more in between. It's got Oscar at the center, and the longest narrative thread is his story (though not by much), but shooting off like spokes are narratives by Oscar's sister and narratives of Oscar's parents and grandparents in the Dominican Republic. And embedded in footnotes is the history of the D.R. And while all these narratives connect because they spoke off of Oscar at the center, they don't add up to a traditional novel (each piece of exposition is unusually complete on its own). And yet the pieces are more woven than individual stories that link. Perhaps Diaz has put two things together--the novel and the short story collection (not to mention the biography)--and come up with something new?

Locals might be interested to know Diaz is reading at Books & Books in Coral Gables on Sept 13.


Rafe said...

Okay, I finished _Oscar Wao_ this afternoon. And in that last chapter, the last page, we learn that Oscar has spent a weekend at a hotel and gotten in a fight with a turtle shell hanging on the wall--which is a story told in "Homecoming, With Turtle." (Available at In that story, we don't know the name of the narrator, but we know it isn't Oscar, since he's been sleeping around; in fact, he sounds a lot more like Yunior. Which makes me wonder, has Yunior stolen Oscar's story? In other words, if _Oscar Wao_ is something between or other than a short story collection and a novel, is Diaz creating an entire corpus held together by Yunior? (To which I'll add that as I got into the last 20 or so pages of _Oscar Wao_, I started to come around to the idea that Yunior is really the main character.)

Ayse Papatya Bucak said...

Hi Rafe--the piece in The New Yorker was actually an essay, so it's Diaz himself battling the turtle. (I only know this because I have The Complete New Yorker DVD and so could access the Table of Contents to doublecheck). The interesting thing is he published the whole of the Oscar Wao storyline (including the turtle battle) in the New Yorker in 2000 and the essay in 2003, so he must have anticipated that readers would notice. Oscar, Yunior, Rafa--they probably all have their seeds in the Diaz biography.