The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and the Condensed Epic

In its review of fiction in the Aughts, New York Magazine implicitly compares The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—the decade’s “signature novel”—to Infinite Jest—“the big buzzy signature meganovel of the nineties.” According to Sam Anderson, Junot Díaz’s 2007 novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize, represents the Aughts’ literary downsizing, from 1000-page epics like David Foster Wallace’s to 335-page condensed ones like Díaz’s.

Díaz certainly is a meticulous writer and editor: It took him 11 years to write Oscar Wao after his breakthrough 1996 short story collection, Drown. It can take that kind of time, however, when your ambition, like Díaz’s, is to relate the story not just of a single protagonist, but of his lineage and indeed, the culture that created it. In this way, Oscar Wao is a condensed epic: the tale of the de León family as a representative of the Dominican Republic during the Age of Trujillo. It’s a project that would take most writers twice as many pages and Wallace 10 times as many.

The first thing you notice when reading Díaz though is the smoothness of his prose. Liberally using Spanish words and expressions,* Díaz infuses his language with that Spanish quality of words flowing one into the next. There is an effortless fluidity to his prose:

“They’d been punching her and her right eye had puffed into a malignant slit, her right breast so preposterously swollen that it looked like it would burst, her lip was split and something was wrong with her jaw, she couldn’t swallow without causing herself excruciating shocks of pain. She cried out each time they struck her but did not cry, entiendes? Her fierceness astounds me. She would not give them the pleasure. There was such fear, the sickening blood-draining fear of a drawn pistol, of waking up to find a man standing over your bed, but held, a note sustained indefinitely. Such fear, and yet she refused to show it. How she hated those men.”

*A basic knowledge of Spanish—particularly slang terms—really helps in reading the novel.

The entire novel, contrary to what you might initially think,* is narrated by Oscar’s college roommate/quasi-friend (and his sister Lola’s occasional boyfriend) Yunior. It is Yunior who provides the sleek retelling of the de León family history peppered with the kind of sci-fi allusions only a nerd like Oscar could appreciate (and fully understand).** He intersperses the brief and wondrous life of Oscar with flashbacks to the Dominican Republic and the lives of Oscar’s ancestors, particularly his mother and his grandfather. These trips into the past ostensibly serve as an investigation into the nature and origins of the supposed curse on the de Leóns—the fukú (“specifically the Curse and Doom of the New World”). What they really do—and in particularly compelling fashion, mind you—is illustrate the stranglehold the past can have on us, and especially on immigrants. The fukú is a way for Díaz to show that the past’s consequences extend far into the present, a belief he expressed in an interview with Narrative:

“My idea in writing about history was to remind people, and maybe even remind myself, that even though this is the past, this was once life. And it had tremendous energy.

“The dead are as much a part of my community as the living. My presence here is predicated on the dead.”

*And by this, I mean what I initially thought.

**A basic knowledge of The Lord of the Rings and other sci-fi stuff helps, too. I only knew LOTR.

The flashbacks do, however, strain Yunior’s believability as a narrator. One can’t help but ask how Yunior, who was never all that close to Oscar, knows so much about his family—to the point where he attempts to occupy their perspectives.* Perhaps he learned enough about the de Leóns when he was with Lola, although in that case he’s just a mouthpiece for what she knows, and his adept sci-fi metaphors seem second-hand. These narrative imperfections are, to an extent, what Díaz wanted: someone who would cause the reader to question the origins of the narration. In that interview with the aptly named Narrative, he said,

“Most of what we call third-person narration creates an unchallenged sense that, oh, a narrative comes out of nowhere and we’ll just enjoy it. But a narrative always has a point and a motive. Part of what’s interesting about unmasking a narrator is that the rupture perhaps prompts a reader to think about what masks a narrator wears and why.

“I think that Yunior goes out of his way to make clear that there’s a tyranny in narration. We just accept that a voice out of nowhere is going to start telling us a story. That’s a given. We don’t question our narratives and where they come from, especially if we like them.”

*This is where some of the confusion about the narration originates. The second chapter appears to be Lola’s voice, but it’s just Yunior doing Lola.

The questions prompted by Díaz’s choice of narrator can only be answered subjectively. What is Yunior’s motivation for retelling the story of Oscar and his family? Is it lingering guilt over how things ended between him and Oscar? A desire to win Lola back? Or just a need to tell a pretty cool story?

However you answer doesn’t really change the fundamental center of the novel in Oscar, the “ghetto nerd at the end of the world” whose quest to find a girl (and not a specific one) is the story’s driving conflict. It’s also, in many ways, its biggest flaw. The first time I read Oscar Wao, I came away really liking the story but wondering why I didn’t care that much about its main character. The second time I read it, I realized my apathy toward Oscar was less a sign of my own coldness of heart and rather some shallow characterization on Díaz’s part. Oscar isn’t a bad character by any means; he is just not a very interesting one, especially in the context of all the other characters that constitute the novel’s landscape. He is less interesting than La Inca, than his mother Beli, than his sister Lola, than his grandfather Abelard, than his roommate Yunior (to whom Díaz implicitly compares him via his narration*), than even the dictator Trujillo who lingers phantasmally throughout the story. The things that define Oscar—a desire for sex, an inability to get what he wants, and an affection for what most people don’t find cool—define a lot of people. And as such, it’s almost disappointing when Díaz returns from a flashback to reveal how Oscar is next going to fail and dwindle further into depression.

*An insight gleaned entirely from aforelinked interview.

This lack of development by the protagonist—which Díaz seems to have implicitly justified by calling it Oscar’s stubbornness in being himself—became clearest to me toward the end of my second reading of the novel, when Oscar falls in love with La Inca’s neighbor in the DR, Ybón. Oscar has fallen in love many times before in the novel. Each time he has fallen in love, it has been of the all-encompassing can’t-imagine-life-without-her variety. Ybón is no different, and that’s the problem. We never learn what about Ybón specifically drove Oscar to pursue the book’s climactic actions (innuendo alert?). It is possible that it was simply the last in a long line of offenses for Oscar, that Ybón was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. But Oscar is only 23, and as a 23-year-old myself, I can’t imagine feeling that way about any woman I didn’t know when I was 22. It’s here where Díaz’s concern with making a condensed epic is the most frustrating.

But all this seems a little harsh for a book that was as deserving of “Book of the Decade” discussion as any other in the Aughts. With a style that can best be described as sexy and an ambition as large as Beli’s chest (“immensities” Yunior calls them, through the eyes of Lola), the novel’s flaws only prevented it from being a more universal choice for the honor. Indeed, my only wishes are that The Brief Wondrous Life were just a bit longer, and that it doesn’t take Díaz 11 years to write his next one.

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One response to this post.

  1. [...] “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and the Condensed Epic” by Tim. We spend a lot of time at NPI talking about literature, but rarely do we get as fresh a perspective on a book as talked about as Tim got on Junot Diaz’s megahit. As with all great book reviews, I felt I understood the book better after reading Tim’s take. [...]

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