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.
Díaz’s narrative, following the logic of the historical preamble that frames it, moves ever backward in search of origins and causes, unearthing patterns that come to seem like fate–the stories you can never escape retelling in your own life. Beli, Lola and Oscar all end up in La Inca’s stern care; Beli and Lola both rebel against maternal figures, and both get sent to snobby Dominican private schools where they’re humiliated by the popular girls and take refuge in reckless affairs. Indeed, the strongest fate is desire itself. If Oscar’s body bars him from sex, not so for the women in his family. Girls burst into voluptuousness virtually overnight, driving themselves and everyone around them crazy. An atmosphere of humid lust hangs over the novel like the smell of soiled sheets. But sex is a political phenomenon as much as a natural one, because there’s always someone more powerful who wants you against your will, or who wants what you want. Abelard meets his grim end trying to protect his eldest daughter from Trujillo’s predations. Beli, at 16, becomes the mistress of a man who turns out to be the husband of Trujillo’s sister. And so it ultimately goes in Oscar’s story, too: desire, danger, defiance, destruction.
But only once he gets back to the island. That’s the other form fate takes: the homeland from which you can never escape. All roads lead back to Santo Domingo–to Trujillo, to the country that kept him in power, to the colonial history that made him possible in the first place. “Santo Domingo will always be there,” Lola is told by a sympathetic stranger on her way out of the country after yet another doomed entanglement. “It was there in the beginning and it will be there at the end.” The stranger, whose words again invoke Díaz’s “Ground Zero” conceit, means to offer comfort, but of course, the fact that “it will be there at the end” is felt by the novel as a tragedy. Indeed, this is a book that keeps trying to end but can’t quite manage to do so. Chapter Seven, “The Final Voyage,” is followed by Chapter Eight, “The End of the Story,” which is followed in turn by still another, unnumbered chapter, “The Final Letter.” “On a Super Final Note,” one subhead reads, then a few pages later the narrator assures us, or himself, that “It’s almost done. Almost over. Only some final things to show you.” One of those things is Lola’s daughter, American-born, whom he hopes can finally bring the story–her uncle’s story, her family’s and by now the narrator’s, too–to an end. No more fukú, no more unfinished historical business. But another one of those things is a panel Oscar has marked in one of his comic books. One character says, “I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.” And the other replies, “In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.”
But Díaz is not content to leave his intuitions about divided identity–about an American story everywhere shadowed by a Dominican one–at the levels of plot, structure and theme. The same perceptions interfuse his every sentence. For what is most striking about his writing is his voice, and what is most striking about his voice is the audacity, bounce and brio of its bilingualism. The energy that drives it is the energy of youth, of the streets, of desire–but it is also the energy of two languages meeting in secret for hot, illicit sex. This is Lola, who gets to narrate her own story:
I ran off, dique, because of a boy.
What can I really tell you about him? He was like all boys: beautiful and callow, and like an insect he couldn’t sit still. Un blanquito with long hairy legs who I met one night at Limelight.
But the Spanish track–which carries rhythms and idioms as well as individual words–is often turned up higher than this in the mix: “from the richest jabao in Mao to the poorest güey in El Buey, from the oldest anciano sanmacorisano to the littlest carajito in San Francisco.” Not only are the two languages woven seamlessly together into a thrillingly rhythmic line; both are treated with an exhilarating improvisational freedom. Díaz’s voice sweeps together ghetto slang, pop cultural nods and winks, puns, historiographic excursuses and blunt, unsentimental lyricism. And he sustains it for the length of a novel without faltering. One can only imagine the prodigies of effort that went into achieving this illusion of effortlessness.
Díaz’s bilingualism aims at more than oral gratification, however. It also seems designed to make his readers, or at least his Anglo readers, uncomfortable. Sometimes you can guess the meaning of a Spanish word from its context, sometimes you can’t (and the idiomatic nature of Díaz’s language means the dictionary often doesn’t help). Sometimes there is no context: Díaz occasionally reels off entire sentences in Spanish, leaving the nonspeaker helpless. It’s a more aggressive version of what Rushdie does in Midnight’s Children with his Hindi puns and idioms, which shift the balance of linguistic power away from the imperial audience. Here it extends to constructing that audience as naïve and ignorant through teasing authorial addresses (“One final final note, Toto, before Kansas goes bye-bye”) and long didactic footnotes (“For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history…”) that relegate the Anglo reader to the margin of the page.
Díaz’s projected Dominican reader–someone like Beli or Lola–is not always treated more courteously, though. His range of reference is replete with high-brow allusions that remind us that we’re reading the work of an English professor: Corbusier, Madame X (“You ever seen that Sargent portrait…? Of course you have”), Joseph Conrad’s wife and “those nightmare eight-a.m. MLA panels.” And few readers, I imagine, will be quite as conversant as is the narrator–who seems as knowledgeable about these matters as Oscar himself–with the many realms of science fiction, whose denizens appear as points of reference on virtually every other page.
Only one person, really, is capable of feeling fully comfortable within the novel’s cultural universe: Junot Díaz. And I think this is the point. In trying to negotiate the distance between his two worlds–the world he’s writing to and the world he’s writing about, the world of people who read serious fiction (“us lit majors”) and the world of people who live tough lives on the islands and in the cities–Díaz is seeking to carve out a space that’s uniquely his own: Dominican Spanish plus literary English plus comic books plus North Jersey, etc., etc. One of the novel’s epigraphs quotes Derek Walcott’s famous line “Either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation,” but the idea cuts two ways. Díaz is giving voice to his nation, but he is also giving voice to himself as a nation.
If the narrators in Drown seem unaware of their existence as narrators, the narrator here places his construction of the book at the forefront of our attention, constantly making us aware of how he consults sources, tapes witnesses and wrestles with the veracity of Cabral family legends, and before all this, of how Oscar’s story had haunted him for ten years with its demands to be told. Much of this performance implicitly acknowledges the narrator’s uncertain status, as an emigrant, relative to Santo Domingo. He anticipates objections from skeptical Dominican readers that he’s trafficking in Dominican stereotypes, inserts last-minute corrections based on new information from native informants, even questions the legitimacy of the whole notion of fukú as a form of historical explanation that mystifies more sociopolitically specific forms of bad fortune.
As a character, Oscar remains something of a blank, perhaps deliberately: not only relatively underdeveloped–we ultimately see much less of his inner life, and even his outer life, than those of a whole handful of other characters–but also unknowable, the author, in his final weeks, of a lost and unrecoverable book that was to have explained everything. But the book we do have, in the figure of its alert, impassioned, conflicted narrator, proposes a defiant new model of immigrant personhood.