Immigrant fiction became a main-lobby door to American literature more than a century ago, and Junot Diaz strode through it in 1996 with Drown, a taut, rapturously received collection of 10 interlinked episodes about a Dominican family in New Jersey and New York.
In the 11 years since, that one book has produced a tremendous payoff for Diaz, now 38: a Guggenheim and many other honors, a tenured teaching spot at MIT, a place among the literary princes of his generation.
It helped that Drown arrived when the publishing world, more than ever, welcomed fresh waves of up-from-the-streets ethnic literature, the natural follow-up to the Jewish, Irish and Italian varieties earlier on. Think of some writers working in America who have won acclaim in the last two decades — Amy Tan, Gish Jen, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ha Jin, Oscar Hijuelos, Gary Shteyngart, Uzodinma Iweala — and a belief that the ethnic (and usually immigrant novel) is passe looks passe itself.
Yet old-fashioned reservations, also raised in their time about novelists from previous “happening” ethnicities, persist.
For one thing, noblesse oblige often plays too big a role in critical responses. “Isn’t it wonderful,” exults the literary elite of established ethnic classes and the fading WASP establishment, that amid the bad news that so often accompanies new immigrant groups as they rise — poverty, drugs, crime — this one or that has produced a writer to give outsiders a peek at the humanity within?
It makes already-arrived literary commissars feel bold and edgy rather than what they are — bourgeois and patronizing.
Other awkward questions also frequently go unspoken. Isn’t immigrant fiction often more a document than an imaginative creation, a not-so-artful reworking of the matter-of-fact life the author grew up with? Aren’t standards of wit, inventiveness, wordplay, incisive thinking, compelling storytelling that we apply to novels that don’t come with green cards sometimes relaxed in appreciation of the author’s taking us into ethnically new, if generically familiar, territory?
Junot Diaz’s long-awaited first novel — Diaz confesses in the September issue of Poets & Writers to 11 difficult and at times depressing years trying to write the second book — reawakens such questions.
Alternately amusing and a mess, packed with both sweet, fun images and endless cliches of lower-class Spanish and non-Spanish street talk, an obvious reshaping for most of the book of Diaz’s experiences growing up Dominican in central Jersey, Brief Wondrous Life will receive thunderous praise this month, despite too many badly written passages and a hodgepodge of repetitive riffs on teenage sexuality, Caribbean exoticism, and “character is fate” (homeboy category).
Maybe that’s because, if you stick with it to the end, it touches you.
Oscar Wao, like Diaz, comes to New Jersey from the Dominican Republic as a boy. Like Diaz growing up, Oscar’s a big reader of comics (especially Marvel), sci-fi and fantasy fiction. Like Diaz, he imagines becoming the “Dominican Stephen King. ” Unlike Diaz, he’s fat, dark-skinned and gross, rather than slim and attractive, unable to play the Dominican lady-killer.
Adolescence hit Oscar “especially hard, scrambling his face into nothing you could call cute, splotching his skin with zits, making him self-conscious; and his interest — in Genres! — which nobody had said boo about before, suddenly became synonymous with being a loser with a capital `L.’ Couldn’t make friends for the life of him.”
Brief Wondrous Life takes us A to Z through its title, dropping back along the way to explore the history of Oscar’s family, including his bombshell mother, and the supposed fuku, or Dominican curse, that plagues the family.
For the first two-thirds of the book, Diaz annoys a reader not already 100 percent in his corner. He sprinkles sci-fi/comic book/fantasy references, and Spanish and Spanglish phrases, with abandon and no explanation, as if smugly unconcerned for any reader of the “universal” sort he’s said he hopes to attract.
At the same time, Diaz indulges in oppressive, glibly written footnotes about Dominican history that, their usual vulgarity aside, might get him flunked out of a Dominican history course for incompleteness, if not inaccuracy.
The most confusing aspect of Brief Wondrous Life is the voice of its principal narrator, Yunior, unfaithful boyfriend of Oscar’s beautiful sister, Lola. Even though it’s Oscar who’s the “ghetto nerd” and sci-fi-obsessed aspiring writer, Diaz likes to intersperse lame hip phrases between Yunior’s sentences. We’re constantly hit with “Bad move, cap’n,” or “Shazam!” or “You get the picture” as if they’re connectives reflective of Oscar.
Yunior’s diction makes even less sense since he’s also a street-talker. One moment he’s offering phrases from a Victorian “How to Write English” guide (“He was totally and irrevocably in love with Ana”) and the next he’s going on about “Marilyn F-ing Monroe.” When Yunior can’t think of a noun, everything is really just “s-.”
That cliched street jive is not remotely authentic given the places Diaz has been, and the one where Yunior (we learn late in the book) now operates. The result is that Brief Wondrous Life reads like Diaz’s unformed freshman novel, and Drown the more polished second effort. Someone (perhaps himself) told Diaz to write onto the page the way he speaks, but for most of this book Yunior speaks in a digressive, all-over-the-place slang that doesn’t ring true.
Then comes the surprise. Far from being unremittingly terrible, Brief Wondrous Life grows on you because Diaz slowly convinces us that Oscar, the sad sack Diaz might have become, is real and matters. He’s not just a symbol, an odd Dominican boy who skews geekish rather than macho, but more of a real lover than all the guys who get the girls.
If you like multigenerational unpackings of families, Diaz’s voyage eventually edifies, reminding us that every personality in a family (nasty mother, troubled sister) comes from somewhere that can be remembered, with a long, painful etiology of its own. He excavates what Yunior nicely calls at one point “a particularly Jersey malaise — the inextinguishable longing for elsewheres.”
Almost as if a relief writer had been brought in from the non-bull bull pen, nearly all the showy, irritating prose tap-dancing falls away in the last quarter of Brief Wondrous Life, and Diaz, finally a true Watcher rather than a Performer (sci-fi reference), expertly drives home Oscar’s inescapable choice of wondrous over long and safe.
Brief Wondrous Life will not displace Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies as the novel about Dominican life and history everyone should read. But a reader’s initial sense that Diaz has nothing to tell us about immigrant life we haven’t heard before, that his book feels more like the closing of a publishing contract than a decade-in-the-making revelation, also fades.
Somewhere along the way, Junot Diaz realized he was writing a love story and he stayed true to it. There is always room for one more of those.