Monday, January 19, 2009

In Defense of Díaz

My co-blogger said she disliked “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” last week because the footnotes distracted her. I think that’s like saying you dislike a portrait because of the frame.

“Oscar Wao,” written by Junot Díaz, tells the story of a young, awkward and corpulent man who wants to be the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien. “Wao” touches on issues like predestination, racism and Trujillo’s tyranny, but these topics are window dressing. The focus is on Oscar, his family and the island from which they came.

There are a fistful of reasons to love “Wao.” Most of them are standard explanations—the characters, the unfamiliar take on familiar topics and the story. (Most reporters are storytellers and will forgive a lot for a compelling plot.) But the primary reason is the language.

Díaz’s voice is both natural and lyrical. He writes in the same voice in which my generation speaks … well, would speak, if we had his vocabulary. I felt reading him the same way, I imagine, the literate felt about “The Canterbury Tales” in the 14th century, or the beats and “On the Road,” or the groundlings and Shakespeare.

Finally, they thought, art that is in my vernacular.

I like Díaz for the same reason I prefer Public Enemy to The Beatles. I’d gladly concede The Beatles musical superiority. (Best I can tell, Public Enemy didn’t do very much with 13-chords and never used a 7/4 time signature.) But Public Enemy felt like they were talking to me.

I also like Díaz for the same reason I like Rudyard Kipling, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Khaled Hosseini. Every now and then, an author writes about a specific place so effectively that they become ambassadors for their subjects. Just like Marquez and Hosseini introduced me to Colombia and Afghanistan, respectively, Díaz introduced me to the Dominican Republic.

Pre- Díaz, if I ever though of the Dominican Republic, I thought of it as the half of the island that wasn’t Haiti. That may sound cruel or ignorant, but the headlines were usually dominated by Haiti, which stole my finite attention from its conjoined sibling. Now, post- Díaz, every time I hear about DR, my ears perk. I listen. Sometimes, I even understand.

I’m not the only one who looks at the Dominican Republic differently now because of Díaz. Our travel editor, Janet Podolak, who suggested the book to me, flew to the island after reading it.

Yes, the footnotes can be distracting. Yes, it would have been better to work them into the text instead of interrupting the plot; but the footnotes are merely exposition that adds to the final package.

Jason Lea,

P.S. Domini Canis, best pun ever.

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