Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao ~ Junot Diaz

I'm not sure what to say about Dominican novelist Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  I didn't like it exactly; appreciate is probably a better word.  That's not to say that I disliked it - it just didn't blow me away or suck me in like I want a novel to do.  It did, however, keep me with it, which is more than I can say for, oh I don't know, Middlemarch (which I will be returning to next).

The novel follows the lives of Oscar de Leon and his family, particularly as influenced by the fuku (or curse) upon them.  Oscar is a ghetto nerd, obese and obsessed with science fiction and fantasy, growing up in New Jersey though of Dominican descent.  We hear a lot about his Dominican ancestry and national history, particularly as it relates to former Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.  There's probably nearly as much Dominican history and stereotype as there is Oscar in the novel which, to be particularly honest, can get tiresome (Though informative - did you learn a drop of Dominican history in school?  Neither did I.).

The barrier that existed between me and the novel was its narrator, Yunior.  Like I complained about the other day, his English is poor and rife with slang and rather offensive terms, which made it difficult to connect with the book as a whole (does that make me sound like a snob?).  This isn't constant - Part II is narrated by Oscar's sister and, as a result, was much more accessible to me - and it tones down as the novel goes on, but that just leant an unpleasant sense of inconsistency.  Often, Yunior seems unable to escape his own story, which begs the question of what the novel is "really" about, though it potentially being about an well-educated, uneducated-sounding, selfish family historian who can't keep his peep in his pants, I'm really not that interested.  I can connect with fat, unloved Oscar far better (at least he doesn't lie about watching Doctor Who).

Despite this poor connection, sometimes it feels like the novel is for me specifically.  Oscar lives quite close to me, and as I read about his in-state movement, I sometimes found myself wondering if five year old me was ever in the Game Room at Woodbridge mall at the same time as him, or if I could have seen him jump from the New Brunswick train bridge onto Route 18's divider from my kitchen window (not quite).  Even while being put off by the narration, it had the ability to evoke waves of nostalgia in me.

I'm not sure that I really understand the Pulitzer Prize, but Oscar Wao was worth my while.  Sadly, it did not live up to the hype ascribed to it, but that's how hype works: designed to disappoint.

1 comment:

  1. Like I (think) I wrote on your last post about Oscar Wao, I don't remember being awed by this book either. I enjoyed it, but I'm not about to claim it as a favorite, buy a copy, or reread it. Diaz did an amazing job with his characters' voices, but you're right - that is, in some ways, offputting, and it also makes it easy to spend your reading either "translating" the voice or noticing the details of that voice rather than what's going on around it.

    Thinking about Oscar now mostly makes me wish that there was more fiction based in the NJ/Philly area. I'm having a hard time thinking of authors or novels that focus on our region - I mean, there's the Corrections & Greater Philly, there's Oscar, but what else? I'm hoping there's a huge class of fiction I've just forgotten about during my two-year absence from libraries & bookstores.