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  • Generous Exclusion: Register and Readership in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
  • Rune Graulund (bio)

Stylistics locks every stylistic phenomenon into the monologic context of a given self-sufficient and hermetic utterance, imprisoning it, as it were, in the dungeon of a single context.

—M. M. Bakhtin (274)

As Lev Grossman’s review of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) informs us, Díaz’s novel is “an immigrant-family saga for people who don’t read immigrant-family sagas.” However, Grossman also remarks, it “wouldn’t really be fair” to term the novel a family saga in that it is so much more than this, “a mixture of straight-up English, Dominican Spanish and hieratic nerdspeak crowded with references to Tolkien, DC Comics, role-playing games and classic science fiction.” To fix it in one particular category or genre, Grossman seems to suggest, is to miss a central point of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Now the central point of Díaz’s novel is in fact rather difficult to locate. It tells the tale of the members of a Dominican family who are trying to make their way in the United States. In doing so, the text shifts its narrative focus back and forth between New York and Santo Domingo, New Jersey and the Dominican countryside. Consequently, it appears obvious that Díaz is keen to voice the concerns of the migrant, preferably in a register that rings true to the cultural and linguistic background of a given migrant’s specific situation. I will be arguing, however, that this most obvious theme of all, the migrant experience, is articulated much more effectively by means of the novel’s multiple registers. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao works not just as a tale of immigration, not only as an account of American imperialism, and not merely as a condemnation of the brutal history of the Dominican regime. The novel effectively addresses these concerns, but it achieves much more. Paradoxically, it is in this very more—in the continued transcendence of the apparently central theme of migrancy—that Díaz’s novel presents its most successful approach to the migrant experience through linguistic and thematic digressions that seem to have nothing at all to do with [End Page 31] the specific politics of migrancy. While there can be no question that the migrant experience remains the central point around which The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao revolves, a reading focused solely on the migrant voices of Díaz’s book will too easily blind its readers to aspects of the novel that are not so straightforwardly categorized. This essay thus constitutes an attempt to pry open a debate regarding the readerships of the novel in terms of its exclusionary strategies in order to show that they are in fact the very opposite, namely inclusive.

First, I address the question of how many different stylistic, linguistic, and thematic registers The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao meaningfully contains. In this, I will tackle the question of translatability through an examination of the manner in which Díaz’s refusal to allow any one register dominance deconstructs a range of linguistic, national, and cultural dichotomies such as English/Spanish, American/Dominican, and non-migrant/migrant. This discussion leads to a more detailed reading of one such particular dichotomy, namely the incursion of untranslated “nerdspeak” into “straight-up English.” In examining this particular set of minority and majority registers in some detail, the essay argues that the novel presents us with a range of highly familiar postmodernist practices of counterhegemonic discourse, yet such practices are made to serve innovative and highly political purposes. The essay will conclude with a reflection on the manner in which The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao may contribute in more general terms to a contemporary debate on multicultural ethics and politics.

Evelyn Nien-Ming Ch’ien presents an investigation of a range of writers producing “barely intelligible and sometimes unrecognizable English created through the blending of one or more languages with English” (3–4). One of her examples of such “barely intelligible...


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