The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Díaz

Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn't have passed for Normal if he'd wanted to.

Most of what I've heard about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was less about the story and more about the writing itself, and now that I've read the book, it's easy to understand why. Díaz peppers his story with Spanish, with references to Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons and plenty of sci-fi that I've never heard of. I'm not sure if some of it isn't Spanish or if it's slang, because half of it I haven't been able to look up anywhere. There are also copious footnotes, mostly detailing bits of Dominican history and culture. I heard an interview with Díaz where he said that he thought of reading as a communal activity; he felt that no single person should be able to catch all the references in the book, that it's the sort of book that should take sitting down with others and discussing. (He also mentioned Wikipedia, but somehow that's not quite the same.)

The story is about Oscar de León, who is an unfortunate combination: a fat Dominican nerd. No matter how he tries, he simply has no luck with the girls. He's like Comic-book Guy on "The Simpsons" except that, being Dominican, he's expected to be more of a Lothario. The book jumps around chronologically, from Oscar in high school to his mother's childhood and back to Oscar post-college. On one level it's an immigrant story, tracing the path of the de León family from Santo Domingo to Paterson, New Jersey. It's also largely about Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic: "our Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator, a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his a-- up." Trujillo's influence over Oscar's family looms large, but in the mixed-up chronology it takes us a while to discover the direct links.

There is also the concept of fukú, a curse which follows generation after generation, and the narrator explains that this is his primary reason for writing down this story. It's a zafa, a protection against fukú, but also an explanation of the disasters that seem to follow the de León clan wherever they go.

When I first started reading the book I tried to sit next to the computer to look up all the references and translate the Spanish, but eventually I gave up on that. Instead I just let the waves of references and language crash over me, occasionally catching an allusion or two. It's slightly disorienting when, for the second chapter only, Oscar's sister takes over the narration, mostly because the entire rest of the book is told by one person.

The book is ambitious in its scope and content but I think Díaz manages it well. It is, in the words of the narrator, a colorful lesson "for those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history." It's also a sad, sad tale about somebody who, in real life, we probably wouldn't have much compassion for. Díaz's narrator manages to walk a fine line between otaku and cool and becomes for us a believable guide into Oscar's world.

It's a book I recommend reading but I'm not sure it's one that everyone will enjoy, especially now that it's won all sorts of awards (including the Pulitzer). It may be the sort of book that you end up reading with the weight of obligation instead of simply reading it for pleasure.

Fed to jonathan's brain | June 26, 2008 | Comments (0)


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