The Pulitzer and Nation Book Critics Circle Award winning book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is not an easy read. Although a fictional novel, it is based upon history and set in New Jersey where the author, Junot Diaz grew up. It is not just the story of Oscar de Leon, referred to as Oscan Wao, a “Getto Nerd” in search of his personal Grail for a “pure and unadulterated love;” it spans three generations and two cultures. It calls up Dominican-American history in a way that can be stark, brutal, lush, tragic and comedic. It refers back to the “fuku curse Christopher Columbus brought on the aboriginal Americans. Most of all it is a story about love; not just the romantic love Oscar Wao is searching for but also familial love and the love between friends.
One of the reasons this book enjoys success is how it employs langrage. Much of it is written in a kind of Spanglish that engages the readers to translate, or forces them to make an assumption. In time there is enough repetition in words, tone and meaning that doing this becomes less and less necessary. At other times the Spanish and Island dialects come out in how the sentence is constructed rather than the actual words used. The following sentence is an example of this. "Beli might have been a puta major in the cosmology of her neighbors but a cuero she was not." . The words are in mostly English, but the order and rhythm belong to the Caribbean
However, it is not just the mix of languages representing the Dominican Republic and the United States of America that serves as a device; it is also how each character uses the language. The author is adept at using code switching to indicate tone and importance as well. Portions of the story are written in a cheerful island dialect, whereas other sections are written in a more formal tone.
Yunior acts as the narrator. He does not just present the events, he comments on them and analyses them as well. This can raise question in a reader’s mind if Yunior were to be taken as introduced, just Oscar’s college roommate. At times he knows things, but adds phrases like “it was not something she talked about” or Oscar cried over a girl “in the bathroom where no one could hear him.” This leaves the reader to wonder, if she never told anyone, and Oscar cried where no one could hear him, how could Yunior know? In one section Yunior not only knows, but provides painful detail as when he describes how Trujillo’s men beat Beli ”like she was a slaveher clavicle, chicken-boned; her right humerous, a triple fracture; five ribs, broken; left kidney, bruised; liver, bruised; right lung, collapsed; front teeth, blown out.” . then later says she never talked about it. However, by employing the device of code switching it becomes obvious that Yunior at times represents the author’s voice as well. His linguistic style switches from his sometimes-profane Caribbean style to a clear flowing academic prose thereby expressing the writers duel identity by expressing both the island and academic sides.
This book employs footnotes, an unusual device for a novel but, appropriate in this case since they allow the reader to keep following the story’s thread. Unlike most foot notes the narrative flows into the footnotes so they become a portion of the story instead of simply providing needed detail. It called to mind how Shakespeare would use character commentary in line spoken aside directly to the audience, not intended for the other actors to hear.
The references to various Comic books, science-fiction, and fantasy literature all play an important role and sometimes feel like a language and dialect all in themselves. With all the allusions and assumptions of a certain kind of cultural literacy it feels like a third language, perhaps “Nerdish” would be a good term, is being spoken. You do not need to know all about the X-Men to understand what Oscar is trying to get at when he says about dictators and journalists “Since before the infamous Caesar-Ovid war they’ve had beef. Like the Fantastic Four and Galactus, like the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, like the Teen Titans and Deathstroke” . Never the less, knowing at least a little helps. Oscar wants to be the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien. The story and particular his speech makes numerous references to the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy that a reader who did not experience those books might otherwise miss. Sometimes it is only a word or two in passing sometimes it is whole passages as when he likens the fall of El Jefe he references back to the fall of Sauron, an elfish ring of power, the Eye and Lothlorien. .
Tolkien is not the only author in the science fiction and fantasy genre that is brought into play. There are references to at least Frank Herbert’s Dune series, Stephen King’s work and perhaps others. It is this interweaving of the Caribbean, American and fantasy language in the narrative and weaving that helps create a powerful, cohesive whole out of what could otherwise be an engaging by fragmented first novel.
Diaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao. Penguin Press, 2008.