Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, A Book Review

When it comes right down to it, a book is just a story. In our infinite zeal to analyze everything, to break everything down into its respective parts, we have created the elements of a book--character, setting, plot, and theme--but in the end a book lives or dies by the story it tells.

Or perhaps even more so by the way it tells the story

There is no better example of this latter supposition than The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. The winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, TBWLOW details the disastrous effects of the fuku--a powerful Caribbean curse--on three generations of the de Leon family, beginning in the Dominican Republic of Dictator for Life Rafael Trujillo (the dictatingest Dictator who ever dictated) and ending in the Ghetto at the End of the World: Jersey.
It is a good story, but in this case the story is merely the canvas upon which Diaz shows off his linguistic talent. Like Tolkien, the author who had a great effect on him, Diaz is more linguist than author, more philologist (philology is study of language, especially the origin of words and language) than philosophist. Diaz is both a lover and a creator of words, an author who mixes languages, references and allusions together to spawn the most unique prose in literature. One does not read Diaz for the plot or the setting or for any other reason than the prose. But the prose is that good:

But be assured: like Darkseid's Omega Effect, like Morgoth's Bane, no matter how many turns and digressions this shit might take, the fuku always--and I mean always--gets it man.

Diaz writes the kind of prose the reader in me loves (man is this good writing!) and the author in me hates (man I'll never write this well!) How it is that a guy who learned English as a second language can put together sentences this good I'll never know, but I have to give him props:

You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.  

Yes, Diaz is the master of the popular culture reference, but just so you don't think he's just an author who has got his copy of the Urban Dictionary handy, consider this sentence:

It's exactly at these moments, when all hope has vanished, that prayer has dominion.

James Joyce or JRR Tolkien would have been proud to construct that sentence, but they did not. Diaz, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who learned English from dime-store novels and comic books, gets all the credit. Yet, although he has his classically-trained moments, the real reason to read Diaz is his trademark voice, a cosmopolitan blend of languages, references to classic Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels (including dozens of LOTR references: our boy wasn't no ringwraith, but he wasn't no orc either) and hard-hitting slang impossible not to admire:

Dude, you don't want to be dead. Take it from me. No-pussy is bad. But dead is like no-pussy times ten. 

Did I mention that Diaz is not for the faint of heart? The man pulls exactly no punches; I even think he goes out of his way to make you uncomfortable. Actually, no, I 'm sure he does. In a lecture he gave at Stanford, Diaz said: "Our privileges exacerbate the horrors of others..." Diaz wants you to feel the way he did when he moved to this country, and his prose does that for him:

If you didn't grow up like I did then you don't know, and if you don't know it's probably better you don't judge.

Me with Junot Diaz, June 6, 2015

And this from Terry Gross' interview of Junot Diaz played on Fresh Air:

And part of what I was trying to get at when writing this book is that, you know, I wanted everybody at one moment to kind of feel like an immigrant in this book, that there would be one language chain that you might not get. And that it was OK.

And that is the most unique aspect of Junot Diaz: he doesn't show, and he doesn't tell either. He doesn't have to: The man can get his point across with the play of the words he uses, the way they sound, the way they are displayed across the page: 

For what Kennedy's intelligence experts failed to tell him was what every single Dominican, from the richest jabao in Mao to the poorest guey in El Buey, from the oldest anciano sanmarcorisano to the littlest carajito in San Francisco, knew: that whoever killed Trujillo, their family would suffer a fuku so dreadful it would make the one that attached itself to the Admiral jojote in comparison. 

It has to be an exhausting undertaking, this writing of what amounts to a novel-length poem, sort of a like a modern day Beowulf. It's small wonder that Diaz has been the antithesis of prolific, having published just two other titles (Drown and This Is How You Lose Her) in addition to TBWLOW. I mention this, however, not to criticize Diaz but to laud him: in this day of quantity over quality and pumping out two books per year, Diaz has stayed true to his formula, the formula of throwing out every formula, device, recipe or method ever used to write a book and just telling a story with his magnificent voice. 

As I'm waiting for the next book to roll out, I'll just re-read the first three and enjoy the echo of the words ping-ponging around inside my skull. 

It doesn't get old.

cheers, p

Peter Hogenkamp is a practicing physician and author living in Rutland, Vermont. Peter's writing credits include ABSOLUTION, the first book of The Jesuit thriller series; THE LAZARUS MANUSCRIPT, a stand-alone medical thriller; and THE INTERN, a novel loosely based on Peter's medical internship, excerpts of which can be seen on Wattpad. Peter can be found on his Author Website as well as his personal blog, PeterHogenkampWrites, where he writes about most anything. Peter is the founder and editor of Prose&Consthe literary blog for readers and writers written by authors, editors, agents, publishers and poets; a frequent contributor and reviewer at ReadWave; the founder and moderator of groups on Facebook (The Library), Google+ (Fiction Writers Anonymous); and the chief of two tribes on Triberr, The Big Thrill and Fiction Writers. Peter tweets--against the wishes of his wife and four children--at @phogenkampvt and @theprosecons. Peter is He can be reached at peter@peterhogenkamp.com or through his literary agent (Liz Kracht of Kimberely Cameron & Associates) at liz@kimberleycameron.com.

1 comment :

Sue Coletta said...

Wow. This is such high praise I might have to add to my TBR list.