Spanglish surrealism

<strong>The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao</strong>

Junot Díaz <em>Faber & Faber, 400pp, £12.99

Oscar de León is not a typical swaggering Latino male. He can't dance, he throws like a girl, and he is obsessed with science fiction. (He relates to the idea of parallel universes: "You really wanna know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of colour growing up in a contemporary US ghetto. Mama mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.") Most worrying of all, he has a chronic case of no-toto-itis (trans: he can't get laid). Is this just standard adolescent angst? Or is Oscar right to believe that his life has been blighted by a fukú, a curse that has hung over his family for generations?

Junot Díaz's immensely enjoyable novel explores the origins of Oscar's neuroses, tracing the de León family's journey back from present-day New York to the 1940s Dominican Republic. At the same time it tells the story of a diaspora from a small island with a brutal history - and examines how that history is played out in the lives of exiles and their children. Díaz, whose debut collection of short stories, Drown, was published in 1997, is a rare treat: a new author who has both something original to say and a fresh and idiosyncratic way of saying it.

The fukú that dogs Oscar is a legacy of his unfortunate grandfather Abelard, who got himself jailed by the Trujillo dictatorship (for readers with a less-than-extensive knowledge of Domi nican history - and there may be a few - Díaz provides colourfully written footnotes on everything from the Trujillato to the "original JLo", the Dominican actress Maria Montez). The curse was passed on to his fiery, pig-headed daughter Beli, who unwisely became embroiled with the Gangster, a sinister Trujillo sidekick. When their relationship ended, she escaped the island alive by the skin of her teeth.

Compared to the dramatic stories of their ancestors, Oscar and his sister, Lola, have things easy. Growing up in New Jersey, they suffer the usual teenage worries - fitting in, making friends, finding love - but both struggle in their different ways to reconcile themselves with their family's past. Unable to find a niche for himself in the macho Dominican community in the United States, Oscar finds himself irresistibly drawn back to the island, and to the same mistakes made by his mother and grand father before him.

With its flights of surreal fantasy and its streetwise attitude, Oscar Wao belongs to a generation of Latin American-influenced writing that, to paraphrase Díaz, is "more McOndo than Macondo". A product of the lives of Latinos in the US, who are increasingly self-confident and culturally influential, it incorporates some of magical realism's magic, but none of its dewy-eyed nostalgia. It straddles two cultures and two languages: Díaz writes in zinging, muscular Spanglish, so a skinny waitress is a girl "whose cuerpo was all pipa and no culo"; Beli is "one of those Oya-souls, always turning, allergic to tranquilidad". He has an embarrassment of verbal riches to draw on: the precision of English, the rhythm and playfulness of Caribbean Spanish. This hybrid language works so well suddenly that it seems surprising it has taken so long for bilingual literature to emerge. How long can it be in our globalised world before it becomes the norm?

The prose is so consistently sharp and startling that it provides ample distraction from some of Oscar Wao's weaker points. The novel works best when it focuses on the stories of Beli and Abelard, which have real narrative drive; the contemporary sections feel meandering by comparison. Díaz suffers from the common postmodern author's tendency to employ too many narrators. He creates a strong and convincing female voice in the chapters narrated by Lola (I loved some of her turns of phrase: "In the end, I just didn't have the ovaries"), but her interventions eventually only confuse the story. Yunior, who narrates the rest, is an inconsistent character who wobbles between being an objective authorial voice and an unreliable, self-satisfied ladies' man.

These are relatively minor flaws in a first novel, however, and they are more than compensated for by the raw energy of Díaz's storytelling. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is not only a gripping read, but also a sign that the Latin American diaspora is finding its literary voice.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn