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Diaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, New York: Riverhead Books, 2007.

It’s always seemed to me that there were two trends in the English novel (the novel in English, not the novel of England). There’s the Jane Austen-type, where the “ironic distance” between the narrative and the characters is low, the writing is meant to provoke in the reader the feelings of the characters, and much more is shown, not told. On the other hand there is the Dickens-type novel, with a high degree of ironic distance, the writing is meant to entertain with tales of the characters, and much more is told instead of shown. The style of the first tends towards verbal stability, the second to exuberance. Both kinds of novel develop out of early-pre-novelistic literature, and neither is more or less legitimate than the other. Nevertheless, the two trends diverged somewhere around the time of, say, Tristram Shandy (1759) and both styles are rarely, if ever, attempted by the same author. (Dickens tries it in the first section of Great Expectations and John Fowles’ also attempted it). The crowning achievement of the Dickens’ type novel is probably Ulysses, but that type is always looking to produce extraordinary examples, outliers. The first type is always looks to keep its head down, and general consensus seems to be that the crowning achievement here (if one can be said to exist) is Middlemarch.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a novel of the second type, drawing not only on the tradition that runs from Tristram Shandy through Dickens to Salman Rushdie, but also on the Latin American tradition of Garcia Marquez and Vargas Llosa. The verbal exuberance of Oscar Wao is fleshed out not only by plenty of colloquial Spanish, but also through references to science-fiction and fantasy, as well as to deliberately unscholarly-sounding footnotes. As always with this kind of novel, puns and wordplay abound, and while this all makes for an entertaining read, it suffers the same problem as all the novels of the second type (except Ulysses) in that it tells more than it shows. We witness the tribulations of Oscar’s family, but we do not really feel them.

Diaz himself is aware of this:

How she survived I’ll never know. They beat her like she was a slave. Like she was a dog. Let me pass over the actual violence and report instead on the damage inflicted: her clavicle, chicken-boned; her right humerus, a triple fracture (she would never again have much strength in that arm); five ribs, broken; left kidney, bruised; liver, bruised; right lung, collapsed; front teeth, blown out. About 167 points in damage total and it was only shee accident that these motherfuckers didn’t eggshell her cranium, though her head did swell to elephant-man proportions. (147, emphasis added).

The “report” of the violence not only becomes a laundry-list of wordplay, but the reference to role-playing hitpoints and the elephant man, the out-of-nowhere “motherfuckers” all serves to take us away from the violence as it was actually inflicted. There are reasons for this - Diaz’ novel is about the effects on a single family of the violence and distortian of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic - and whether you prefer this or something more intimate, more sensible, is a matter of taste only, I think. And certainly one doesn’t have to choose - the clinical language and descriptions of Garcia Marquez which achieve enormity or the blood, sweat, and tears of Jane Austen - literature has room for all of this.

On the other hand, it’s difficult to understand whether Oscar Wao himself is meant to represent anything beyond himself. In novels of the second type, allegory, representation, symbolism abound (one thinks of the repeated names in One Hundred Years of Solitude or the word-painting in Ulysses), so it’s tempting to think that Oscar, the overweight virgin geek who eventually falls to the violence of the regime, is meant to represent something more, but I’m not sure I can tell what that is. Perhaps, true to the postmodern vision, this is nothing but play, and I shouldn’t be looking too deeply for hidden depths (postmodernism and postmodern novels being concerned primarily with surfaces), but it does seem as if Diaz wants to say something serious about about the violence of politics, families, and dictatorships. Does the playfulness, the surface play, undermine that? I’m not sure.

This was certainly entertaining, and there’s a lot to enjoy in the book, but I’m not sure it quite got where it intended to go.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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