This is way outside of my normal range, and getting into it was a chore, I have to admit. It was clear from the start that Diaz has an enormous tool-box as a writer. I’m still in awe at the way he slides, within a single sentence, from street to scholarly and back without getting annoying. Out of many sentences I highlighted, here’s one long one that can stand for much I loved and found difficult about this book:
“Student today don’t mean na’, but in a Latin American whipped in to a frenzy by the Fall of Arbenz, by the Stoning of Nixon, by the Guerillas of the Sierra Madre, by the endless cynical maneuverings of the Yankee Pig Dogs — in a Latin America already a year and a half into the Decade of the Guerilla — a student was something else altogether, an agent for change, a vibrating quantum string in the staid Newtonian universe.”
To be honest, I’m not sure what he’s talking about half the time (I mean, physics and Latin American history; not my best categories) but I’m hooked. And it’s not just the confidence and energy of the authorial voice. He is also supremely humane. The narrative follows the lives of three generations of Dominicans, Oscar and his sister Lola, their mother Belicia, and the aunt (known as “la Inca”)who raised Beli. The locale shuttles back and forth between the US and the DR, the time frame between the present and the past. We start with Oscar, a fat, virginal nerd in Paterson, New Jersey, a loser by pretty much any standard. You have to love this kid, but you cringe at his complete inability to negotiate his world. Gradually, as Diaz draws us through his family history, Oscar’s predicament becomes comprehensible, and eventually, inevitable.
The prologue discusses the concept of “fukú,” “the Curse and the Doom of the New World.” The book’s most consistent narrator, Yunior, talks about how his parents saw it all around them — the aura of Trujillo, the Dominican Republic’s longtime strongman. And it’s this “fukú” acting in the lives of the de Leon family that ultimately forms their characters and determines their fates.
For the first hundred or so pages, I was reading dutifully. It was interesting, and I cared mildly about Oscar, but when the action moved to the Dominican Republic, the language and the characters took on a warmth and a generosity, a liveliness and flavor that were much more sympathetic.
Also astounding: two scenes in the cane fields. Symbolically loaded: sugar cane requires cheap brutal manpower to harvest. I can’t be wrong in thinking this is a colonial crop? And what goes on there, amid the tall, tough stems, is the worst perversion of the worst colonial system, a landscape turned doubly against its inhabitants.
I dimly remember the Aristotelian notion that “pity and horror” are two of the principal components of tragedy. Diaz is way too subtle to stress how The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao qualifies for that title. We can figure that out for ourselves.