Thursday, May 26, 2011

Oscar Wao ~ First Impressions

So I rarely post about a book when I'm only a few pages in, but there's so much going on in my head regarding the first 33 pages of Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, that I just need to say talk about it, and isn't that why I have a book blog?

So first off, there's this beginning bit that's not really identified as anything and has Arabic numerals (you know, numbers) at the top of the page, rather than Roman numerals, so it seems to be the beginning of the novel.  And it's this whole big thing about the fuku, a curse brought over by Christophers Columbus (or something) that plagues Dominicans and kind of makes them seem like a bunch of superstitious crazies.  There are several extremely long footnotes that made me groan because, well, I don't like footnotes unless they're explaining something vague and Shakespearean and doing so in three words or less.  But I plow through them and hope that there won't be many more.

And then I turn the page and there's a fancy decoration with a Roman numeral one, and then the page after that has the word "one" in a box, so apparently the novel is starting now.  So I check back and there's definitely nothing to identify that first bit as a prologue or an introduction.  But maybe this means that there won't be any more footnotes (there will be) so I plow on.

And then there's the narrator.  Except for the first line (which begins "Our hero"), it's written in the third person by a narrator who is very much present despite the lack of the "I."  The narrator curses, delivers up Dominican stereotypes, and analyzes Oscar all at once, all while telling Oscar's story.  And I'm just overwhelmed by trying to figure out the purpose of the narrator and if he/she/it will come into being at some point, and trying to work out truth behind the stereotypes (which my Dominican coworker denied familiarity with and was rather offended by), and trying to figure out if I'm even enjoying it.

The narrator also speaks in quite horrific, slangy English peppered with Spanish (most of it vaguely understandable, particularly in context).  This lack of proper grammar is quite off-putting - I like when authors give characters voices and linguistic tics but normally that's interspersed by the calm, correct narrator who acts like white space, relieving the senses.  Being faced with lines like "When they were around he didn't need no Penthouses" (27) around every turn can be quite overwhelming.  There's also an element of modern realism (not sure if I'm misappropriating this term - perhaps I should say present-day realism?) that strikes a rather negative chord, like when girls are described as "fine as shit" and "hot-as-balls" (27).  I don't think it's so much that I take offense (because I accept the equally degrading 19th century equivalents quite readily) as much as possess a general disdain for narratives that are too localized in the present: i.e. the mention of a Playstation in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire or the reference to Facebook in Vaclav & Lena.  Perhaps this is because of the inaccessibility of such allusions?  These things (and hopefully these words) will mean nothing to my children and as a result, the literature in which they appear may become inaccessible.  While I'm reading it though, I just experience a sudden distaste, a sense that this doesn't belong in a book.  But perhaps I'm getting too far off-topic and should give this discussion its own post.

Things I definitely like about Oscar Wao without qualification: mentions of places near me.  Oscar grows up in New Jersey (my home state) and, I believe, eventually goes to Rutgers (my alma mater), and it makes me feel special to see these familiar places referenced, like when I saw ads for Jennifer Convertibles as a child or when I saw a Marcketta pizzeria in Italy (yes, the "k" was there).

Has anybody else read Oscar Wao and experienced the same frustrations?  If so, please don't reveal anything about the narrator - I'm sure something is coming in that department and I don't want it spoiled for me!


  1. I read this a while ago so I can't remember clearly what I thought of it. I wound up enjoying it, but it's not among my favorites, and I liked Diaz's story collection more.

    I liked seeing the NJ stuff too, though, especially Rutgers - to see Oscar living in the same dorm I lived in. I'm having a hard time thinking of any other fiction NJ plays such a big role in, and it's nice to, for once, see places I recognize in a novel.

  2. I read the book about a year ago or so ago, but I remember having the same reaction you're having. People had such good things to say about it, I almost want to read it again. I feel like I must have missed something.

    I also liked seeing NJ mentioned so much (my home state as well). I remember that being one of the things I like that most.