Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Brief and wondrous life

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.


Melissa Barrett-Traister said...

Glad that you enjoyed the book,as did Paul.

I've read it too,and loved it!

Hope you are well.


OBermeo said...

I also love how the written word plays into the book. Could the fact that Oscar's grandfather was trying to write a book about the Trujillo regime the source of his family's fuku? Was Don Abelard's literary collection the real prize Trujillo was trying to own and/or eliminate?

And then the letter Oscar sends Yunior in the mail. Great, great stuff.

Mark Doty said...

Agreed, Oscar. And it's interesting that Yunior seems to have read everything Oscar has -- which makes you wonder, despite his claims to heavy-duty bench presses and many a girlfriend, if he isn't home reading an awful lot of fantasy/scifi?

And then there are those paginas blancas -- which everyone has.

Jillie said...

I found the language intruiging and wonderfully picturesque. The only downside to my reading was that I had to do it for a class, which took most of the fun out of it. I much prefer reading something on my own and analyzing it later, rather than stripping away the marrow bit by bit.

What else do you recommend? (I suggest adding "The Historian" by Elizabeth Kostova. It's spreading through my school and work like wildfire.)