I think Junot Diaz is my personal literary discovery of the year. For once, I’ve encountered an author’s wonder roughly at the same time as everyone else, even the Pulitzer folks, who gave The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao this year’s nod for fiction.
There are a multitude of reasons to praise (as the book jackets say) Oscar, but the main element for me is voice. At the risk of sounding like one of the apostles of MFA voice/character-driven tome, I think the wave that carries all the extraordinary events, history, insight, terror, and wonder of this book is the authentic, overwhelming voice of the narrator.
A couple of weeks ago, while I was finishing this book, I posted the thread fuku [means something like “curse”] on the DRI forum, just out of curiosity. These days I’m nerdy like that. The talkback blew the fuck up. You should see how many responses I’ve gotten. They just keep coming in. And not just from Domos. The Puertorocks want to talk about fufus, and the Haitians have some shit just like it. There are a zillion of these fuku stories. Even my mother, who almost never talks about Santo Domingo, has started sharing hers with me.
As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, I have a fuku story too. I wish I could say it was the best of the lot–fuku number one–but I can’t. Mine ain’t the scariest, the clearest, the most painful, or the most beautiful.
It just happens to be the one that’s got its fingers around my throat.
That hyper, colloquial, honest, hold-nothing-back style keeps the story racing through decades of tumbled-around history, dozens of characters, and a mix of language and vernacular that goes way beyond Spanglish. If you really want to get down with this book, you might have to work a little. My Spanish is at the level of what I call functionally literate. I can talk to cab drivers and waiters and citizens-on-the street about mundane matters as long as the conversation doesn’t get too complex or fast or colloquial. However, I had to Google up an on-line dictionary of street Spanish to keep up with Diaz. He has no respect for the Hispanic-culturally deprived. It makes for speed bumps and breaks the narrative spell, but it’s worth the effort.
And speaking of speed bumps, Diaz also has no respect for the line between fiction and textbooks. Since much of the story revolves around the Dominican Republic in the days of the dictator Trujillo, and since much of the world is ignorant of the details–or even the existence of–those days, he gives us footnotes. Detailed and scholarly in their own way, but still in that street voice that dominates the rest of the narrative.
If you were a teacher critiquing an outline of this book, you’d probably red pencil the hell out of it and tell the student he couldn’t possibly make a decent work of fiction–let alone one that would sell–out of a story with extensive small-print footnotes, long, unexplained non-English passages, a title character who doesn’t appear until halfway through the book and who is anything but a strong, proactive protagonist. You’d probably caution him to make the time-line more clear and maybe keep the narrator less intrusive. You’d have been–I’d have been–wrong. So wrong. Talent and skill obliterates all rules and all professorial judgment. I could love Oscar for that alone, but I don’t love it for any reason alone. I love it for its rich totality of literary experience.