Apr 212010
Authors: Matt Minich

Three years ago Dominican-American author Junot Diaz released his debut novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Almost immediately, the book was greeted with praise from critics in literary circles around the world.

Since its publication, the book has been awarded with the coveted National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The story centers on the young Oscar de Leon, a Dominican-American “super-nerd” with a love of comic books, role-playing games and Japanese animation.

Though the book’s title references Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis MacComber” –– a story of a man’s struggle to attain manhood –– Oscar fails from page one to the novel’s end to live up to the high level of machismo associated with his fellow Dominican men.

Like all members of his family, Oscar is haunted by a curse called a fuku, which supposedly will lead him inevitably to sorrow and doom. Interspersed with the narrative of Oscar’s life, the novel tells the story of the De Leon family, and by extension, their fuku in the Dominican Republic.

Diaz uses this fiction to educate his readers on the tyrannical regime of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the country from 1930 until his assassination in 1961.

Diaz’s use of language throughout the book brings to mind a hip, contemporary Kurt Vonnegut. The novel is rife with obscure historical and science fiction references, with the notorious Trujillo compared to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sauron or Darth Vader, and is littered with Spanish words and sayings.

The read is easy, and Diaz’s tendency toward hip-hop phrasings and rhythms keep the pages turning. The number of references and Spanish phrases will have readers turning to the book’s footnotes, which sometimes are so numerous they take up the bulk of the page.

As the title promises, the novel guides through Oscar’s entire life –– brief though it may be. Diaz shows us his comically pathetic encounters with his peers, girls, and members of his own family, along with the solace Oscar seems to find in his fantasy games and comics.

The plot does not hamstring itself by becoming another nerd comedy though –– think “Napoleon Dynamite.” By incorporating a vivid telling of the De Leon family history, Diaz places Oscar’s story in the broader context of the struggles of his family and the entire Dominican people.

“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is, from all angles, a mutt of a novel. As a Latin American author, he writes a world infused with a magical realism that echoes Garcia Marquez.

As a humorist, he writes about even the most difficult or macabre suspects –– the novel includes a number of scenes where members of the De Leon family are raped or murdered by members of the Trujillo regime –– with a shocking degree of irreverence.

As a student of contemporary language, he lends his prose an urban flare that is all-too often attempted but rarely perfected by slam poets and urban novelists. Diaz’s use of slang, both in English and Spanish, never comes off as contrived, but instead flows like it was coming straight from the lips of the cocky Dominican boys who torment Oscar throughout the novel.

Diaz seems to have been trying to create a unique Dominican-American voice in contemporary literature, and he succeeded by leaps and bounds.

While his numerous influences may often be very clear, it has been a long time since the literary community saw a voice as unique as Diaz’s. And I suspect the next will be a long time in coming.

News Editor Matt Minich can be reached at news@collegian.com.

 Posted by at 5:23 pm

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