I read Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao a year ago, when a lot of people read it – when I was seeing it in airports. I’m choosing to write about it now because, even though it’s been a year, it’s still the last book I loved.
After finishing, I recommended Oscar Wao to every person I knew who would read it. It wasn’t hard to convince them. Most people like the multi-narrative technique. It makes sense: you can choose your favorite voice or favorite story; and here they were all compelling. Equally compelling were its lessons on Dominican history, mostly in footnotes, tragic and comical, and its look into one version of the contemporary New Jersey / East Coast / American experience. Mostly I just said, you have to read it; it’s the best book I’ve read in a long time.
Since then, I’ve read a lot of other books, mostly those that friends recommended or lent to me. Stories about arms trafficking and the difficulties of choosing one’s occupations. About growing up rich and aimless. I didn’t love any of those books. I liked them, but I don’t think about them much anymore. Instead, I find myself thinking about Oscar, the title character of Diaz’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, sitting in his room, fat and alone, reading science fiction. Even more, I think of his sister, the rebellious Lola. Of her mother asking her how she could treat her so badly, of her wanting to break the entire length of her life across her mother’s face: all her heartache, all her loneliness, the cold hard fact of the distance between them. Because they have “that kind of mother: who makes you doubt yourself, who would wipe you out if you let her.”
I saw myself in all those other books – the ones I liked – but only briefly. I think it’s because here, with Oscar Wao, I saw myself in all of it. This despite never having been to the Dominican Republic and having been to the East Coast only once. Because I knew Oscar and Lola’s loneliness. Because I had that kind of father. But it was more than that; I didn’t just see myself, I saw what it is I love about literature.
There was one passage that I read over and over. That made me cry each time. That made me put down my copy and say I love this book. It comes after Oscar’s mother, Beli, has been beaten nearly to death, at age 14, by her boyfriend’s goons, and left for dead: “In the gloaming of her dwindling strength there yawned a loneliness so total it was beyond death, a loneliness that obliterated all memory, the loneliness of a childhood where she’d not even had her own name. And it was into that loneliness that she was sliding, and it was here that she would dwell forever, alone, black, fea, scratching at the dust with a stick, pretending that the scribble was letters, words, names.”
I cried for Beli. I cried for her children who would be shaped by these events that took place so many years before they were born. I thought of lying on the floor of my bedroom and crying to no one when I was 11 (and 8 and 9 and 10…). I think of my father, in his foster home, at age 6. I’ve seen only one picture of him as a boy. I think it’s the only one that exists. That’s the boy I see when I read about Beli. A small blonde boy, who looks like me, in a plain white T-shirt holding a dirty wooden sailboat, squinting into the camera. I think of his brothers beating the shit out of him because who else could they beat the shit out of? I think of his first foster father strangling him when he made too much noise. Or his next foster parents telling him he could go trick-or-treating if he stayed in his room all day. Telling him he couldn’t go after all because he did go outside, when he got the newspaper for them that morning at their request. I think of myself, at 18, telling him that I cared more about other people than he did, and his telling me that he had had the empathy beaten out of him.
Seeing myself in Oscar and Lola, seeing my dad, that unfortunate bastard, in Beli, seeing a part of my life that before now was so painful that I pretended it did not exist, not only made me love this book, but reinforced my love for literature and the power it can have to shed light on the pain people cause in each other’s lives. It makes me want to turn my life into something beautiful that other people can read and quote and underline.