Friday, September 5, 2008

Lively Language

I've never read a book quite like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and I'm having a hard time figuring out how to describe it. So I'll start with the title character Oscar. He lives in New Jersey, and he's the antithesis of the stereotypical Dominican. Instead of being a smooth-talking sharp-dressing ladies man, he's an overweight nerd who loves action comics, role play games and Lord of the Rings. He longs for a girlfriend but he is socially inept, and speaks in a combination of SAT vocabulary words, elvish and Spanglish. A lot of time I read this book sitting at my computer, so I could use Google Translate. I now know the names for virtually all female body parts in Spanish.

But after author Junot Diaz opens his book with Oscar's story he expands it, moving forward and backward in time, to include Oscar's runaway sister Lola and his mother, the fierce and beautiful Belicia. The novel is not just about Oscar but about fukú, a curse that hangs over his family and follows them from Santo Domingo to Patterson, New Jersey and back again. This expansion allows Diaz to weave in a lot of history of the Dominican Republic under dictator Rafael Trujillo and his successor Joaquin Balaguer. Actually 'weave' is probably not the right word, since much of this historical information is given in the factual but irreverent footnotes sprinkled through the book. The brutality of the Trujillo regime strikes the lives of Belicia's parents and her sisters, and Beli herself is forced to escape for New York when she is only sixteen.

Diaz has an amazing gift for language. He writes touchingly about Oscar's longing to find a girlfriend, or even just to be kissed, but at the same time so much of what he writes is so funny. It's slangy, energetic, street smart, full of references to everything from J.R. Tolkien to Mario Vargas Llosa, riffing about women, love, and fukú. It can sometimes be hard work understanding his polyglot prose, but I found it well worth the effort.

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