The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews The
Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar
by Junot Diaz.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Diaz

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Readers almost forgot about Junot Diaz. His 1996 short story
Drown, earned praise for its spicy prose — a mixture of
English, Spanish, slang, and street talk — and its harsh tales of life
among Dominican-American immigrants. Even back in 1996, this slim
book of stories was seen as a prelude to the great novel the twenty-
seven-year-old was already in the midst of writing.

More than a decade passed and no novel was published. Diaz continued
to reap the benefits of his early success. He received a
Guggenheim fellowship, a professorship at MIT, and
other honors, but as Diaz got closer and closer to his
fortieth birthday, the absence of the long-awaited
novel started to tarnish his once glittering reputation.

How fitting that when the novel finally appeared
earlier this month, the plot revolved around a
Dominican-American author who struggles for years
with his writing without ever publishing a page — all
because of a supposed family curse.  But
The Brief
Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
is anything but a cursed book.

The novel starts out
muy caliente, right where Drown ended. We are
again led by narrator Yunior, another struggling writer (a recurring
theme here) who relates the story of his friend Oscar, a nerdy Latino
with a disastrous love life and a much-ridiculed attachment to science

Diaz crafts a complex narrative, full of flashbacks, side stories, and
even footnotes that eventually encompass a partisan history of the
Dominican Republic and complete accounts of the tribulations of
Oscar's forebears. Much like Philip Roth in
American Pastoral and
Thomas Mann in
Buddenbrooks, Diaz aims to present the full
panorama of the rise and fall of a single family over the course of three

If the plot structure is arcane, the language is punchy and direct — and
here, all comparisons with Thomas Mann are out of place. Almost
every paragraph mixes in a dose of Spanish or Spanglish. The macho
bravado of the street corner permeates every page. Diaz tosses out the
F-word and the N-word and a lot of other raw talk with disturbing

I am more impressed by Diaz's daring mixture of elements outside the
typical purview of the Third World immigrant novel. He pays tribute
to his protagonist's love of science fiction by sprinkling in crazy and
unpredictable references to
Dune, Tolkien, Dejah Thoris, Planet of the
, Dr. Who, and a host of other genre topics.  At other times he
throws his readers a surprising high-culture curveball, as in the name
of his hero, which comes from a Latino's mis-pronunciation of Oscar
Wilde. The clash and interplay between these different elements in
Diaz's writing impart a quirky and enjoyable syncopation to the flow of
the book.

Diaz succeeds on several levels. He has done much more than tell the
story of Oscar Wao. He has artfully captured the history of a country, a
family, and the immigrant experience of Dominican-Americans. Unlike
the history lessons in school, this one never gets boring. Let's hope we
don't need to wait another decade before we get a sequel.
The New Canon

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