Riverhead, 2007, 340 pages, C$15.50 tpb, ISBN 978-1-59448-329-5
During the summer of 2008, the drums of the genre-SF critics starting passing along shocking news: for the second year in a row, the Pulitzer prize for fiction had been given to a geek-friendly book. A year after Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it was Junot Diaz’s turn to walk away with the prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a mainstream novel about a genre-obsessed nerd. After earning raves from the mainstream press, the novel then proceeded to win over SF reviewers, who got a copy from the general fiction stacks and Declared It Good.
There are plenty of reasons to be so enthusiastic: Diaz’s first novel is an enthralling mix of multi-generational family history, immigrant experience, macho storytelling and geek references. It’s got a little bit of magical realism in-between tales of the Dominican diaspora and American geek name-dropping.
At a distance, the story is simple, as narrator Yunior tells the story of the titular life of Oscar Wao, a former roommate whose life was shaped both by a terminal case of geekness and a family curse dating back to 1940s Dominican Republic. The story moves both forward and backwards in time, following Oscar in one direction as his life begins in 1974, and up generations as the tale discusses Oscar’s Mother’s childhood and then deeper in time to Oscar’s Grandfather’s life immediately after World War 2. Three shadows always loom over the narrative: Oscar’s own shortcomings (especially in the romance department), the terrible legacy of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo and the even more unnerving menace of the fukú curse placed over Oscar’s family. As the title suggests, the story may not have an entirely happy ending.
But don’t get the impression that this a dour novel, because The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao shines brightest when the narrator’s confidently sarcastic voice goes riffing on the beauty of Dominican women, the absurdities of life under Trujillo or Oscar’s burgeoning nerdiness. Yunior, we’re supposed to understand, is the type of pure Dominican male who hits the gym thrice weekly, knows the hippest clubs and leaves a trail of conquered women. (If the novel will have a weakness for some readers, it’s that it’s written in a very masculine voice.) Yet when comes the time to tell the story of Oscar , nothing short of SF&F references will allow Yunior (who refers to himself as a Watcher) to do justice to the tale. So one gets to read passages such as…
Beli, who’d been waiting for something exactly like her body her whole life, was sent over the moon by what she now knew. By the undeniable concreteness of her desirability which was, in its own way, Power. Like the accidental discovery of the One Ring. Like stumbling into the wizard Shazam’s cave or finding the crashed ship of the Green Lantern! [P.94]
If nothing else, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao features the strongest narrator voice you’re likely to read this year, a near-perfect blend of literary ambitions and genre references. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel quite like this, nor one that exemplifies some of the best aspects of (North-)American culture blending like this one. It’s both a terrific mainstream novel and an even more fulfilling geek-friendly novel. A full understanding of the novel is probably impossible outside comic-friendly hip Dominican readers, but don’t let that dissuade you from giving this novel a read. It’s got much to teach to anyone who thinks the values of mainstream literature are incompatible with genre readers.