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The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao

September 27, 2015

BriefWondrousLifeOscarWaoIn the wake of the great late 19th/early 20th century wave of mass migrations to the United States (and with the internal Great Migration underway) came the Jazz Age of the 1920s, 30s and 40s with brilliant, pulsating, energetic, subversive developments by a new generation of young artists working in popular music, theater, film and fiction who reshaped and redefined what it means to be an American.

Having just finished Junot Diaz’ electrifying 2007 novel, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, I won’t be surprised if future generations look back at today’s young musicians, actors, playwrights, directors and writers and see a similar redefinition of Americanness in their art and artistry.

And, just as the Jazz Age owed much to the mass migrations from southern and eastern Europe that took place before the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act slammed the door shut to “undesirables”, today’s cultural ferment owes much to the reopening of those doors by Hart-Celler Act of 1965.

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao is exhilaratingly Dominican and American, telling the DeLeon family’s story over four generations in ways that wouldn’t have been possible had Oscar’s mother not immigrated to Paterson, New Jersey where her son Oscar grew up as a painfully shy, obese nerd…at a time when nerdiness (e.g., obsessions with Dungeons & Dragons, comic books (both Marvel and DC), the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert, goth music, makeup and clothes) not only wasn’t “cool”, it was a cue for mockery and torment from one’s peers.  And if that was true for American adolescent society in general in the 1980s and 90s, it was doubly, triply true in the machismo-drenched, working-class Dominican neighborhoods of greater New York.

Diaz tells the story of Oscar’s long, haunted, tormented life…and of his brief, wondrous life, and in doing so tells the story of the Dominican Republic throughout La Era de Trujillo and its bloody, painful aftermath.  It’s a story that can’t be told—or understood—without talking about the behemoth to the North, and the immigrant’s always uneasy and contested relationship with his/her new home.  Diaz tells that story too, alternating among several voices (Oscar, his sister Lola, Lola’s boyfriend Yunior) and generations (Oscar’s mother Beli, her father Abelard, Abelard’s cousin La Inca).

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao is full of code-switching—from Dominican to American, from sci-fi to machismo, from the streets to the university, from dictatorship to democracy, from poverty to affluence—and of the precariousness that accompanies a life (any life) that necessitates so much code-switching.  It’s a story in which, as Diaz cites more than once, a terrible beauty is born.

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