When I taught English composition, one of the things I disliked most was trying to describe why a perfectly good paper got a B grade and what separated it from an A grade. It’s a tired cliché that is true about many arts: it’s hard to define good writing, but you know it when you see it. There’s an ineffable something that makes some writing feel elegant, smooth, clever, and pleasing, while other writing seems clunky, silly, boring, and torturous. And even when I’m reading good writing, I’m often hard put to say how the author pulled off an audacious, but fantastic passage that would have fallen flat in other hands.
Junot Díaz, in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), is that kind of writer in spades. He mixes graduate-level English prose and vocabulary, with street slang English and Spanish and a heavy dose of literary and cinematic references from genres as broad as classical English poets to science fiction and fantasy to comic books and Japanese anime—somehow managing to make it all sound effortless and natural. His thoroughly post-modern, non-linear narrative turns category inside-out and hierarchy upside-down. Sometimes it’s hard just keeping track of the narrator, who shifts without warning through different first-person voices, into a blend of second- and third-person, and back.
Lest you think Díaz is some kind of savant, unaware of his craft, his introductory first chapter—not called an introduction, but clearly serving to frame the rest of the novel—explicitly tells you he’s about to take you down the rabbit hole, into a Dominican wonderland (the titular “wondrous” is a direct link to Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), and then he takes you there. That place is full of oppressive heat, superstition, violence, corruption, plantains, and sugar cane. Reading the many footnotes (yes, footnotes!) provides a crash course in the history of the Dominican Republic, with special emphasis on the Trujillo Era (named for the Dominican dictator, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, aka, El Jefe), which lasted for over 30 years (1930-1961). Díaz quite consciously uses the novel to educate his audience, creating an entire new world (for the Dominican-ignorant) in the high tradition of the fantasy literature in which he is obviously steeped.
Oh, and there’s a story, too. It’s a family story. A story about sons and daughters. About growing up with parents that love their children, but show it in ways that are not always helpful for anyone. It’s a sad story, with the possibility for life and love between the tragedies. It’s a story about racism, sexism, bad luck, and a few things we can do to fight them, whether successfully or not. If the ending doesn’t leave you hopeful, at least it doesn’t leave you broken. The novel feels very personal for Díaz, like he was compelled to write it, if for no other reason than to have it stop bothering him. And perhaps this is part of what makes it a great novel—that Díaz knows his craft and his material intimately and could write it no other way than as an expression of himself and his experience.