- "Reassembling the Fragments":Battling Historiographies, Caribbean Discourse, and Nerd Genres in Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. . . . Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.—Derek Walcott, "The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory"
In "The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory," Derek Walcott suggests that Caribbean art "reassembles the fragments" and "restor[es the] shattered histories" of the islands. These images of fragmentation, reassembly, and restoration are particularly useful in describing the literary and historical reconstructions of Dominican history offered by Junot Díaz's 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The novel's title suggests the narrative goal of chronicling the life of Oscar "Wao" (the narrator's nickname for the novel's hero, Oscar de León), an overweight Dominican "ghetto nerd" from New Jersey. Yet the task of telling his story soon grows to implicate recounting the experiences of Oscar's family (including his sister, Lola, his mother, Belicia, and his grandfather, Abelard) as well as the history of the Dominican Republic as it relates to their lives, from the United States-backed occupation to Trujillo's dictatorship to the massive diaspora following Trujillo's ascension. The wide historical scope of the novel is evident from the outset. The preface begins with references to the first encounters between Europeans, Tainos, and Africans in the "New World." The chapters that follow explore the lives of three generations of the Cabral-de León family, non-linearly covering the 1940s through the 1990s. This story is filtered by Yunior, Oscar's sometime friend and our mysterious narrator, whose identity and involvement in the story are only slowly revealed and whose name is not even mentioned until almost two hundred pages into the book. Throughout the narration, Yunior self-consciously struggles and experiments with how best to accomplish his task because in the process of his research, as he attempts to uncover both the story of the family and the history of the nation, he is continually confronted with silences, gaps, and "páginas en blanco" left by the Trujillo regime. Yunior often explicitly rejects the possibility of recovering an original, whole story because so much of the history he wishes to recover has been violently suppressed and shrouded in silence. The sources to which he has recourse are fragmentary at best, and he asserts the need of his art and creativity to cohere those shards and give a new shape to the vase of Dominican diasporic art and history. The novel adopts a hybrid [End Page 498] narrative model which reflects its focus on diasporic characters (the matriarch, Belicia, is forced to leave the Dominican Republic and settles in New Jersey where her children are born and raised). Oscar Wao self-consciously engages with Caribbean literary and historical discourses, with a heavy emphasis on Afro-Caribbean literary tradition, while also adopting narrative structures and references particular to United States literature and popular culture in a language that crackles with vibrancy. The result is a form that incorporates superhero comics, magical realism, and noir, among other genres, as well as conventional historical narration and the use of multiple narrative perspectives.
The mixture of Caribbean and United States references is signaled in the two epigraphs of the novel. The first comes from the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby comic, Fantastic Four, which provides one of the narrative frames of the novel. The epigraph reads: "of what import are brief, nameless lives . . . to Galactus??" This epigraph hints at the role of comics, which figure prominently in the novel. It also points to the relevance of the comic genre to the story, as it questions the element of "brief, nameless lives" in relationship to Galactus, a god-like figure in Fantastic Four whose considerable power is alluded to in his name. The question of the "nameless lives" of figures traditionally not considered in histories of the nation and their relationship...