Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)

I’d been recommended this a few years by a colleague who I don’t think read sf, but knew I did. I never got around to it until this summer, despite a pile of copies in Albatross House’s SILENT ZONE which is where I tend to work. Other friends liked his worked, and I often use those rather chunky quotation in lectures:

”Look, without our stories, without the true nature and reality of who we are as People of Color, nothing about fanboy or fangirl culture would make sense. What I mean by that is: if it wasn’t for race, X-Men doesn’t sense. If it wasn’t for the history of breeding human beings in the New World through chattel slavery, Dune doesn’t make sense. If it wasn’t for the history of colonialism and imperialism, Star Wars doesn’t make sense. If it wasn’t for the extermination of so many Indigenous First Nations, most of what we call science fiction’s contact stories doesn’t make sense. Without us as the secret sauce, none of this works, and it is about time that we understood that we are the Force that holds the Star Wars universe together. We’re the Prime Directive that makes Star Trek possible, yeah. In the Green Lantern Corps, we are the oath. We are all of these things—erased, and yet without us—we are essential.”

And this would almost be the epigraph to this novel, in part the fictional biography of Oscar De León, a young science fiction fan growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, but originally from the Dominican Republic. Because he is a geek, because he is overweight, he can’t get a girlfriend, and if he can, he can’t get laid. He is teased and bullied.

No, wait, this isn’t just a difficulties with girls novel that Roth or Amis has inflicted upon us.

There is the background of Dominican history and the regime of Rafael Trujillo and the rod of iron with which he ruled his country. The narrative offers an account of Oscar’s sister, Lola, and their parents and grandfather and the ways in which they seemed to be afflicted by a family curse. Much of the history of Trujillo is given in lengthy footnotes, along with quotations from and references to The Lord of the Rings; Trujillo is equated with Sauron. The fantasy elements and the politics hint of magical realism and the directly referenced One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. We are torn between the desire to see Oscar achieve his desires and horror at the sadism imposed upon him by the narrative.

The narrator is frequently visible, discussing other drafts of the novel and boyfriend to Lola, as well as being an avatar as Yunior to Junot himself. The novel is clearly metafictive.

I found myself thinking back to earlier American novelists, in particular Kurt Vonnegut for his interventions as author in his own books and John Irving for his convoluted family sagas with their painful conclusions.

I also began to wonder if The Tin Drum was in the mix, with its lead character Oscar as the boy who never grows. I thought there was a character called Lucinda too — having read an article on that novel and Peter Carey’s book twenty five years ago — but clearly not and perhaps Lola is a step too far. I clearly need to read Grass, but I’m aiming to read more women and writers of colour when not obliged to read for work or research. Certainly I will read Drown and This is How You Lose Her as soon as I can.

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