Cosmo: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a prose novel by Junot Diaz. The book, published in 2007, examines the tribulations of a family over he course of three generations and two countries (the Dominican Republic and the United States). It is an exceptionally well-written book, full of both compelling characters and cultural history. One element which runs through the book is the title character’s love for genre. From comic books to Lord of the Rings to role-playing to anime and more, Diaz seamlessly weaves this motif into the essence of the narrative. Geek culture becomes as much a part of the novel’s language as the phrases of Spanish scattered throughout.
Pat: Yes, to provide a little bit more context, writer Junot Diaz is very a much a “geek” dude that can go in depth on comics and does so in parts of the book in a way that is only bested by his extensive knowledge of the Dominican Republics history. He has been in a relationship with former X-Men writer Marjorie Liu for the last four years and he had Gilbert Hernandez of Love & Rockets fame do a cover for his last collection of short stories. In other words, dudes comics cred is official. At the same time Oscar Wao is a Pulitzer Prize winner, Diaz himself had a MacArthur Fellowship, he’s a creative writing professor at the prestigious MIT and is on the board for several non profits. In other words, his writer cred is official. Cosmo, you read this book recently where as I probably finished it two years ago and have been planning on writing on it since the site’s inception. What are your thoughts on the novel now that you just completed it?
Cosmo: As you point out, Diaz has been able to merge “high” & “popular” art into one. I did not know his biographical details while reading the book, yet, it was clear that this was material which meant a lot to him. The book never feels as though Diaz simply did a lot of research so that he could speak Geek convincingly. It was as personally resonant as the descriptions of Dominican culture.
My primarily reaction to the book was simply how well written it was. Diaz’s narration shifts in tones, as he alternates between the generations (Oscar, his mother, her father), yet all of them are completely engrossing. This is a book which grabs you with the language from the beginning and never lets go. However, the writing is much more than style. The characters are engaging, fully development figures. I also was fascinated by the sections about the Dominican Republic. I shall confess that I had previously never known much about the island’s history. I wish I could say I was surprised by what I learned, but given what I do know about other countries in the region, I was not . . .
Then, after having finished the book, the more I reflected on its themes, the more my understanding of what Diaz accomplished grew deeper.
Pat: “As you point out, Diaz has been able to merge “high” & “popular” art into one”
All of your points are 100 but I wanted to touch on that sentence because to me it’s an essential element of the novel, specifically how Oscar & his families journey mirrors some of the long form epics that are central to comic book storytelling. It’s like a blend of comics, magical realism, classic authors & his own upbringing as an immigrant kid in NJ that meshes together rather seamlessly. Before that though I’m curios on how your thoughts evolved on the book with more reflection
Cosmo: The more I thought about the book, the deeper the overlap I saw between the subject matter and the genre elements evoked throughout. When I first started reading I simply took the allusions as acknowledging Oscar’s frame of reference, in the same way Diaz would leave most of the Spanish untranslated. It was another form of colloquial expression. However, the more I considered the book, the more thematic weight I realized that these genre elements held. If I knew more than five words of Spanish (OK, 6 now thanks to Diaz, though that last one is pretty useless in polite conversation), I could probably say the same for that use of that language as well.
You could say that how people use language to express their sense of self is one of the primary themes of the book . . .
Pat: Yeah certainly and maybe how they develop that language, how it’s very complex and unique to the individual. For Oscar that language is based on his actual history and all the geekery that he is passionate about, and somehow that coalesces into something truly unique. It also has this interesting thing where it’s his own self that is sort of always knocking into the conformity of those around him and that ends up causing him a lot of pain. At the same time it’s built up like a hero’s quest accept it’s all deceptively low stakes. I say deceptive because even though his end goal is to get laid, how that happens and it’s byproducts in the context of his family history make it so much more. I think that also speaks toward the tyranny of the Dominican Republics regime and how all the awful shit that came out of it end up making the act of Oscar having sex this huge thing.
Cosmo: “somehow that coalesces into something truly unique”
I think that’s where individual personality traits play their part. The narrator of the Oscar sections is no stranger to a geeky allusion (he repeatedly refers to himself as a Watcher), yet, he does not share in the same social awkwardness as Oscar. Oscar has a distinct way of talking, quaint and old-fashioned, which is all his own. One of the main reasons he never succeeds with women is he has no clue how to approach them, talking a mile a minute about the most esoteric topics. If only he knew how to chill and take it easy, it would have been a little easier for him. This is one of the strengths of Diaz’s writing: the characters are nuanced, and refuse to be reduced to a type. Which is part of their problem as every social group prefers to deal with others as a type than an individual. Hence all the obsessing over whether Oscar is a “real” Dominican or not.
Perhaps in the end that is Oscar’s quest: to discover what his heritage means to him, how to relate to it, and build his own sense of being a Dominican-American that feels authentic to him. In other words, how to come to peace with who he is, regardless of what anyone else might think.
Pat: And then he dies for it while swearing his future vengeance…..
“I was part of that group of kids growing up in the ’80s under the Reagan regime, what I used to call ‘living in the shadow of Dr. Manhattan,’ where we would have dreams all the time that New York City was being destroyed, and that that wall of light and destruction was rolling out and would just devour our neighborhood.”
Cosmo: Well as many an epic has taught us, fulfilling the quest rarely comes without a price . .
Getting into the comics aspect of the book, so much seems to parallel or take influence from Watchmen. Like Brief, Wondrous, it shares a non-linear structure, jumping back and forth in time. Also, it’s cited directly in the text. Watchmen we are told is one of Oscar’s essential texts. He even circled one of the panels in his first edition trade: Dr Manhattan’s famous parting words “nothing ever ends.” It’s a powerful moment, one of of my favorite in all of Watchmen.
I think that the quote applies in two ways: one is to Oscar’s family. Even if individual stories come to a conclusion, the clan soldiers on, an idea which again is reinforced by the generational nature of Diaz’s story. It also is relevant on a much longer scale. One of the running motifs through the novel is the lingering wounds of the past. The Trujillo dictatorship scarred the entire nation. The past never lets go of us; there is never a clean slate.
Pat: That Watchmen quote is one of my favorite parts of the book and comic. So much of Oscar is about legacy which is the same theme that really applies context to those quotes. I love it as well in the context of his sisters daughter, like there is a piece of Oscar there. It also has this interesting parallel with genre fiction tropes, like this peaceful & idyllic world (Dominican Republic) is destroyed and he is from this family in exile in this sort of wasteland (NJ), it’s Oscars that’s this weird hero, but at the same time it’s real. Like it almost brings those narratives to reality & shows that it’s as epic as science fiction or fantasy.
Cosmo: “Like this peaceful & idyllic world (Dominican Republic) is destroyed”
Exactly, though, to Diaz’s credit he never shows us the “innocent” Dominican Republic. The furthest back he goes in the family’s history is to the days of Oscar’s grandfather in the 40s. We see the island during the dictatorship and after but never before which I think was a wise choice on Diaz’s part. It prevents any type of rose-tinted Golden Age from emerging. Of course, Diaz traces the Dominicans’ misfortunes all the way back to the landing of Christopher Columbus, so Paradise was lost long before Trujillo’s shadow fell over the lands . . .
Which brings us back to your observation about genre motifs and heroes. Brief, Wondrous is full of allusions to comic books, but the single biggest genre element is Lord of the Rings. Trujillo is compared multiple times to Sauron, his enforcers to Ring Wraiths and so on. I’m pretty sure Frodo and Samwise are evoked at some point as well. i think that it shows one of the reasons why so many of these stories remain so perennially popular. They tap into something universal, which stretches beyond the work’s original context. (Tolkien always claimed that there was no allegory in his work to the events of his lifetime, but I take such statements with a pinch of salt). Same thing with Watchmen. It will be 30 years old in 2016, yet its characters and their moral dilemmas remain relevant to new readers for whom it is now a period piece.
“The Caribbean is such an apocalyptic place, whether it’s the decimation of the indigenous populations by the Europeans, whether it’s the importation of slaves and their subsequent being worked to death by the millions in many ways, whether it’s the immigrant processes which began for many people, new worlds ending their old ones”
Pat: “Exactly, though, to Diaz’s credit he never shows us the “innocent” Dominican Republic”
Do you think that’s another parallel to Watchmen in some ways? Maybe it’s a weaker link but they both try to observe things as they were in the past instead of idealizing it to help explain the present. As for Tolkien, Diaz often name checks the author, although this probably my favorite quote on the matter
“Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over”
Cosmo: That quote about Elvish is great.
Alan Moore is definitely not one for romanticizing the past, which is a trait he does share with Diaz. This sets them both apart from Tolkien whose entire project was the conjuring of some pure England which never remotely existed in the first place.
I do think that there is another intriguing comparison with Watchmen, though it’s one that is never stated outright. Throughout the novel, the narrator invokes the concept of Fuku. Essentially, it means a curse that stretches back over the centuries. From Columbus through colonization though Trujillo and into the present, the people of the island have had the deck stacked against them. On a smaller scale, this is true of Oscar’s family as well. No matter how hard they protect themselves and their loved ones, they are unable to escape the curse. Even years after Trujillo’s death, the institutions he created remains, the corruption lingers.
This led me to thinking about another of my favorites quotes from Watchmen: “This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us.”
Rorschach here is refusing to allow criminals to escape blame for their actions. We all have the power of choice. Circumstances are important, but they do not excuse everything. As I’ve discussed previously, this conflict is at the heart of the Batman/Joker dynamic. We cannot control the tragedies of our lives, but we can chose how we respond to them. Now one of the strengths of Watchmen is that Moore gives the readers multiple perspectives and lets them draw their own conclusions. But I digress. In Wondrous Life, Oscar’s fate is a tragic one, but at the same time it was one that he was warned away from by many sane voices. As I was reading it, I was sitting there, hoping that there was some way out of this ending, though I knew that there wasn’t. (The title is “Brief” not “Lengthy” after all). But was it Fuku? Did the curse kill Oscar or was it his own misguided devotion? Both at the same? Again, there is no simple answer.
As I said, Rorschach’s speech (or even the character in general) is never mentioned in Brief, Wondrous. However, the quote has such prominence in Watchmen, I would be surprised if it never passed through Diaz’s mind . . .
Pat: Yes that is an intriguing comparison that I hadn’t considered prior. I think Diaz & Moore would both share the view that its probably a combination of both. What’s a beautiful thing about the two books relationship with one another is how Oscar is informed by Watchmen in so many ways, but its to tell a story that is personal to Diaz. Its like he made his Watchmen or his Lord Of The Rings & in doing so might have made something better. Its this truly American artistic experience to have these outsiders inform your own world view and then you come back & reconfigure it until its your own
Cue Reeds cartoon of Alan Moore complaining about everybody copying Watchmen
Cosmo: Oh, the trials & tribulations of an Original Writer . . .
Or is it even uniquely American? Moore wrote plenty of stories which reconfigured American characters into his sensibilities. After all, we probably would never have had Watchmen without Charlton Comics. As the song goes “you got to pay your dues, before you pay the rent.”
But, yes, I do agree with your broader point about America and immigrant narratives. New traditions are always being stirred in, altering the cultural landscape . . .
Pat: I suppose your right, so what was your favorite random comics metaphor? I likes when he called the two Goons Solomon Grundy & Gorilla Grood
Cosmo: That’s actually the first one that comes to my mind as well. It’s not only a great laugh-line but it helps reinforce just how dire a situation Oscar has found himself in. Guy’s been cornered by two toughs who resemble Grundy and Grood? No way this can play out well . . .
I keep thinking that there should have been an Inhumans reference, but I don’t think that there was. There were a few to the Fantastic Four, however, if I remember correctly
Pat: Again, your memory is much fresher then mine. For me, the Tolkien, Watchmen & the last thing I mentioned are really stuck in my memory
Cosmo: Same here. And the Watcher references which we mentioned above. There were a fair amount of allusions to anime, but that’s not really my specialty, so they didn’t resonate with me as they may have with others.
Pat: In the end I think we both agree that The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is a fantastic piece of fiction and if your into comics I would call it an essential reading. It is yet another example of how the medium has effected popular culture and how ideas can start in one place and evolve into something better.
“Art has a way of confronting us, of reminding us, of engaging us, in what it means to be human, and what it means to be human is to be flawed, is to be contradictory, is to be often weak, and yet despite all of these what we would consider drawbacks, that we’re also quite beautiful”