I've just finished Junot Diaz's THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, which I loved. I read it on it the way to Chicago and back, where I'd gone to spend the day at a high school I liked a lot, Lyons Township -- really a remarkable poetry culture there, a place where teachers have built a regard for the art over many decades of work. I gave a reading after school was out, and two hundred kids came!
Anyway, Junot's book is terrific, and its energy and vital force were helpful now, when the spirit of our household has been made heavy by Paul's mother's passing. The book turns a bracingly direct gaze at suffering and at death, which is what one wants at a grave hour -- no false distractions -- but it also has such drive and life in the narrative voice, and a contagious eagerness to know its characters.
One of the feats of the book is that its central character doesn't really do a whole lot, until quite late in his life, when he takes up a quixotic quest. Oscar reads fantasy novels and writes his own, designs role-playing games, fantasizes wildly over women he's afraid to meet, and that's about it. Yet he's the carrier of the heritage of diaspora; it's in his troubled body that a cursed history of his mother and grandfather's suffering under Trujillo comes to rest -- and maybe, in fact, it goes further back than that, the burden of a colonized history, an occupied past.
And the structure of the book is spectacular; it feels effortless but moves in a complex way back and forth in time, between generations -- so that the history of Oscar's sister is couched inside his story, and inside his story is the heartbreakingly grim story of their mother. And then further back, to Oscar's grandfather, whose destruction by the dictatorship sets into motion the tragedy of his mother's life -- a bitter and impossible woman who becomes increasingly a center of emotional gravity in the book, for all the pain she's carried, and for all the nerve it took to keep going forward anyway.
And it's spectacularly funny, in the most unlikely way; who would expect footnotes on the bloody history of dictatorship to be delivered in a voice that slides into wisecracks without a bump? -- a voice that gracefully hashes together Spanish, English, bits of Tolkien, Dominican and Paterson NJ slang. When the book was done, I missed that narrator. I wanted him to keep talking to me.