The immigrant experience, it's been noted, is no longer what it once was. When immigrants who came to the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries left their homelands, they left them forever. There were no telephone calls, no trips home for Christmas. Family was left behind, and so, for good or ill, was history. Emotional ties may have remained strong, and conflicts and allegiances may have carried over into the new neighborhoods, but what happened in the Old Country, and even what had happened, usually had little practical significance. The New World was a new start.
Things are different in the jet age. Now you can go home again, and the trail of immigration has become a two-way street. Assimilation is less certain, involvement with the homeland more intimate and more fraught. Even after a generation or more, families can remain suspended between two places, two languages and the claims of two discordant histories. All this is especially true of immigrants from the Caribbean basin, whose lands are so close, and whose status and plans are so often unclear. Two further circumstances distinguish these arrivals from others, be they Asians now or Europeans a century ago. First, their Old Country was already the New World, their existence there the legacy of prior displacements. Second, they come to the United States already having had historical business with it. The past they're no longer leaving behind when they get to America has already been scarred by America itself.
This new experience is calling forth a new literature. Junot Díaz's work is not, like earlier immigrant writing, about the confused but inexorable process of becoming less and less what you were and more and more American. It's about remaining what you were and the suspicion, or hope, that you'll never become American. It's about how Nueva York is less a new start than another chapter in the same old story.
Díaz made his debut eleven years ago with the highly acclaimed short story collection Drown. The pieces in Drown are brilliantly crafted, and so is the volume as a whole. It starts with three stories that take us from childhood in the Dominican campo to late adolescence in the slums of North Jersey, the path followed by Díaz himself. But then the trajectory doubles back: back to Santo Domingo (as Díaz refers to his homeland), back to childhood, back to everything we thought we'd left behind. And so it goes, back and forth, again and again. At the end of the book, we're still waiting to get off the island.
Now Díaz returns with a novel that reorchestrates this idea of an inescapable history on a grand scale. One of Drown's strengths was the tight focus of its vignettes and the limited horizon of its narrator-protagonists' understandings, the poignancy generated by the sense that these doomed Dominican kids were oblivious to the larger circumstances that determined their choices and chances. Now Díaz places their world in its widest possible historical context. That's why The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao begins not with its title character, a nerdy Dominican boy growing up in North Jersey in the 1980s and '90s, but with African slaves; exterminated natives; "dictator-for-life Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina," "also known as El Jefe, the Failed Cattle Thief, and Fuckface," who ruled the country from 1930 to 1961; and the Italian explorer who planted his first colony on Hispaniola in 1492, and whom the book refers to--so inauspicious in Santo Domingo is the utterance of his name--as "the Admiral." The white man's advent, the narrator tells us, released a demon into the world: Fukú americanus, "the Curse and the Doom of the New World." It is this fukú that drives the story, exerting its power on both the national and personal scale: on the Admiral himself; on America and JFK; on Trujillo's enemies, who include Oscar's grandfather; on El Jefe himself; and at last on poor Oscar, all the way up in New Jersey.
In other words, Santo Domingo becomes the site of a kind of colonial Original Sin. Oscar himself will call the place the "Ground Zero of the New World" (and because Oscar dies in 1995, Díaz is reminding us that the phrase referred to Hiroshima before it became a slogan of American victimhood). Díaz isn't just telling the story of one sad Dominican; he's telling the story of a whole nation, and ultimately of a whole region. In Puerto Rico, the narrator discovers, they call the curse fufu, and in Haiti, he hears, they have some other name. Cuba and Mexico become frequent points of reference throughout the novel. But Díaz's compass is wider still: "Santo Domingo was Iraq before Iraq was Iraq" and "Trujillo was Mobutu before Mobutu was Mobutu." For all its vivid Dominican particularity, Díaz's story aims to stand for that of an entire imperium. Fukú americanus, indeed.
So what is his story? Oscar's problem, bluntly put, is that he can't get laid. He's fat, he's awkward, he's into comic books and fantasy novels and role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, and he doesn't know how to talk to girls. In other words, he's not just uncool, he's un-Dominican, because being Dominican, the narrator tells us, is all about having "Atomic Level G[ame]," "pulling in the bitches with both hands." So Oscar passes a miserable adolescence, belonging nowhere; and college, where he's befriended by the narrator, his older sister Lola's sometime lover, is still worse. "Wao," which makes him sound Asian, isn't even his real name; it's just someone else's mishearing of "Oscar Wilde," another outcast, and the "wow" it suggests is, at least at the time, deeply ironic.
It is only a few years after graduation, when Oscar visits his great-aunt La Inca in Santo Domingo, that things get better: suddenly, wondrously, briefly and tragically. But by the time we get there, Díaz has given us three more stories: that of Lola, who runs away with a white boy because she can't live with her mother's impossible demands, then gets sent down to La Inca for straightening out; that of Oscar and Lola's mother, Beli, who's rescued by La Inca from a life of poverty only to fall into a series of forbidden relationships that leave her with the psychic scars that will so repel her daughter; and that of Beli's father, Abelard Cabral, whose defiance of Trujillo destroys his family and sends Beli to the backwoods hovel from which La Inca will eventually rescue her.