I recently watched an interview with Junot Diaz on Slate. He was congenial, if a bit shy and smiled a lot – his shaved head and neat little goatee almost gleaming under the studio lights – this smooth earthy brown cocoa and coffee skin. He almost seemed like too much of a nice guy to have written Brief Wondrous Life.
He read from his book, a chapter way down the line where Oscar’s inevitable fate is meted out – a vignette of thick-necked gangsters and tense car rides out to the cane fields. A scene more at home in a Grand Theft Auto mission than a literary upstart.
Looking back on it though – those brief moments of clichéd violence fit neatly with this complex tale of a Dominican family and the “curse” that’s plagued three generations.
But before we get there we start with Oscar himself: overweight, nerdy, one of those stereotyped characters that patronize comic cons, live action role playing, collect Warhammer miniatures and Dungeons and Dragons tomes. There are a few hilarious episodes with Oscar, his “cool” roommate Yunior (the narrator) and his misadventures with the finer sex.
But the majority of the novel is dedicated to the story of Oscar’s mother. As a girl she is orphaned following the torture and imprisonment of her father (and subsequent insanity of her grieving mother) by the insatiably sadistic Dark Lord and Dictator of the Dominican Republic – El Jeffe – Trujillo. The tyrant casts a long shadow across the entire book, and all three generations feel his vengeful and petty wrath in myriad ways.
Diaz’s brilliance is how he reveals this history of Hispaniola through the language and verbiage of 1980s nerd culture – comic books, fantasy novels (especially Tolkien), and role playing games.
By painting Trujillo as Sauron and his chief goons and torturers as Nazgul, Diaz has given the entire sad history of D.R a sort of narrative lightness, a sense of destiny, and all the bloodshed and repression becomes part of a mythical narrative infused with the spirit of the people.
This presents a rather interesting reading experience. I was more versed in the lexicon of the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Silmarillion than the colloquial Spanish slang littered throughout the narrative. Other readers probably have the opposite background. It created a somewhat lopsided and unique experience. But it does illustrate how literature and narrative is an interactive art form – the author may transcribe his thoughts into text but the reader must take it in and translate.
Diaz is a wonderful and inventive writer. This is his first published novel and a few of his tricks and trendy techniques felt a little gimmicky and pretentious. But this was a fascinating and engaging novel, and a fast read as well. Well deserving of the Pulitzer last year.