The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is a novel published in the year 2007 to unprecedented acclaim, and the novel turned to be a huge critical and popular success winning The National Book Critics Award and The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Junot Diaz published his debut, which was called Drown, a collection of short stories that also received high acclaim from multiple critics including Hermoine Lee, the great literary biographer of Penelope Fitzgerald; yet it was not until this first novel, this masterpiece of diasporic fiction that he shot his way up to the stars. In a list compiled by the BBC which aimed to find the top 20 best novels of the 21st century, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao ranked as the first above great modern classics such as Wolf Hall, The Known World, The Corrections, White Teeth, Gilead, Austerlitz, The Line of Beauty, My Beautiful Friend and The Half of a Yellow Sun. In a reader’s poll conducted by The Millions, the novel won the popular vote of being the best novel of the 21st century, yet again. By then, and I can cite many more critics, polls and references, it was clear that Junot Diaz, a man, a writer of novels and short stories couldn’t have been ignored by the literary world.
Since the past few weeks, I have undertaken a task to read and review some of the best known novels of 21st century, because, I am afraid, it feels that I have to change my usual course of reading now, in order to analyse the voice lurking in our time; breathing, singing, and rising in the air, these voices from all different parts of the world cannot be ignored especially for a student of literature, they are paramount. The term Great American Novel has been used by many condescendingly and ignored by most. Jonathan Franzen is the only one to have appeared on TIME Magazine’s front cover as the Great American Novelist after he published his second masterpiece, Freedom. America can only be captured by the orchestra of polyphonic voices; otherwise, its soul would still be hidden in the mist. I would agree wholeheartedly that Jonathan Franzen is the Great American novelist, but others can claim the throne for themselves like Toni Morrison and Junot Diaz. If somebody were to say that it would not only be logical but also be true.
Tumbling headlong into the heart of the novel, it is the story of Oscar Wao, a troubled, disturbed young teenager who is sexually and emotionally frustrated due to loneliness, the lack of women in his life and the constant humiliation he has to face in consequence. He is on the receiving end of the curse (Fuku) which has haunted his family for generations. It is also the story of women; bewitching, enticing and magical women who are so well placed, portrayed and depicted in the novel that it becomes hard to think of any contemporary novel written by a male writer who has been able to accomplish that feat. It could be said that the novel is a long, heart-breaking anecdotal joke which takes the reader through a whirlpool of different emotions. I will explain certain aspects of the novel so that I will be able to unpack the virtual oxymoronic sentence which I have written.
The novel is set in the Santo Domingo and New Jersey during the times of the menacing Rafael Trujillo dictatorship. Oscar Wao is a lonely, overweight kid who loves to read books, especially fantasy, science fiction and he has another deadly venomous passion in life; he loves to fall in love with girls. He thinks about them, he falls in love them, and he desires them, wants to be with them unlike his fellow macho Yunior, who woos them and dumps them later for a new sexual escapade.
Looking back on the whole journey, I’d say there is so much packed and written and injected into this three hundred thirty-five-page novel that one is left unbelievably shocked at the symphony of themes hidden in the novel. The novel is a fable which addresses the most fundamental issues of our times and perhaps of all times. Amongst issues addressed in the novel are themes of dictatorship, gender inequalities, depression, sadness, loneliness, nerd culture, science fiction, escapism, writing, and mythology, especially the curse of the Fuku.
Junot Diaz’s novel has the flow and ebb of a fable; a philosophical tale of mythologies, but it proves to be much more, in the end; the whole portrait takes the shape of reality. Most critics I have read, have praised the novel’s humour or the humorous treatment of some of the most difficult and miserable themes of the novel. The novel is, strictly speaking, notwithstanding the satirical humour, a difficult, depressing and extremely sympathetic experience which demands from the reader the emotion of love and compassion for all characters, especially Oscar Wao. The story is so painfully heart-breaking and so innocently tear jerking that you feel dismayed at the web of reality that the writer concocts. I have never come across, in literature, a character like Oscar Wao. His remarkable stoicism, his quest for manhood, his innocence and childlike passion for love and literature can melt the heart of the most stone cold and immune readers. Oscar Wao is a legend and, in my view, the perfect Macho we are all looking for and hoping to be in our lives but not quite in the same way as we fantasise masculinity to be.
Structurally, the novel is perfect with beautifully written and sparse sentences which nonetheless depict the strength of a page in few words. The use of slang and diasporic colloquialism is inherent in the backbone of the novel’s prose and stylistic achievement. Words and sentences which readers wouldn’t be able to understand completely are there to fulfil a higher purpose. The bi-lingual faculty of the novel evokes the sense of nostalgia and authenticity and reminiscence in the reader’s mind. It feels like you are being drawn into a world which already exists, waiting to be unveiled from the shadows of third world fantasies.
There are two kinds of great writers: The ones who write beautifully poetic passages and craft longer novels; and the ones who write sparse, short and crisp sentences which remove the relaxed pace of the novel and compel the reader to jump into the action straightaway. Junot Diaz, especially in this novel, belongs to the latter. The novel has the pace and diversity of themes which would usually be attributed to a five-hundred or six-hundred-page novel. Most critics and readers admired this vibrant, dynamic quality of the novel, but some readers had a huge problem in getting through the flux of magical realism; which accentuates the already accentuated heightened sense of reality.
The novel is superbly humorous yet devastatingly tragic; it makes the reader feel helpless, who is a spectator unable to do anything to pull out the characters from their pit of overwhelming unhappiness. Whatever happens to Oscar Wao is incredibly sad, yet the character himself is wonderfully written. There were times in the novel when he became more real to me than anyone else around me, and I felt his misery and pain and solitude and loneliness. Perhaps, the feeling of compassion for the protagonist and frustration at his constant failures made me immune to the humour, because even though the novel itself is clever, sharp and witty; I couldn’t help but see the sadness beneath it all. It felt almost inhumane to laugh at the incidents and happenings in the novel, yet I can understand why other readers weren’t immune to the humour.
The novel beautifully addresses other aspects of the first-person narration, for instance, the unreliability of the narrator. It is very difficult to differentiate between physical reality and the subjective psychological perception of it, which the characters are experiencing. It is difficult to analyse the entire novel because, as a reader, as a student and as a person, I am at a very distant plane from where the novel is coming. If there is one thing the novel proves about the authors, is that he has a calculated ingenuity and inventiveness about his writing. His sentences enliven the English language with breath-taking renewal and redemption from the cluttered mass of repetition it had become.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a tour de force which will make you laugh, smile and feel heartbroken at the way things happen to people and often happen to good people in life. Oscar Wao is unlike anything you have ever come across in literature, he is an original who will demand something more important than attention from his readers; he will demand the reader’s love because every great character needs it, to survive in the memories of other people. Junot Diaz has given voice to a new continent and has given a breath of fresh air to the phenomenon of The Great American Novel.