Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)

Junot Diaz's first novel, which followed a well-received collection of stories 11 years earlier, won a Pulitzer Prize and much acclaim, and it's not hard to see why. It's all voice and the voice is dazzling, steeped in Spanish idiom (heavy on the Dominican), youth argot, and nerd culture. It's the latter that impressed, amused, and amazed me most, pulling out Fantastic Four references as easily as Japanese anime as easily as fantasy role-playing games as easily as Star Trek—all Star Trek. I don't doubt that I missed more than half the references—they are sly, and constant, and it's a world that was only mine in passing, and never entirely so. When that wears thin (if it wears thin, and I don't think it does), Diaz turns with equal facility to political / economic / cultural history of the Dominican Republic, incidentally making the case for its nearly utter evaporation in world history. Thanks again, U.S. foreign policy! Oscar Wao thus bears a deceptively heavy burden. The propulsive momentum and the knack for highly charged and always engaging language reminded me more than once of Philip Roth. But the novel also seemed to me somewhat uneven and with nagging structural problems, most notably the place and purpose of the narrator, beyond his convenience as someone positioned to see it all and comment so richly on it. The story is most interesting to me when the main character, Oscar de Leon ("Wao" is a corruption of "Wilde" in a fanciful comparison to the literary giant), remains front and center. The necessity for plunging into Dominican history, often via lengthy footnotes but in whole sections of the book as well, eventually comes clear, but the novel did come perilously close to losing me here and there. Even the dazzling voice itself has some inconsistencies, shifting so much with Part II that I thought maybe a new narrator had come along. I suspect Diaz cares a good deal more about Dominican history than nerd culture—as, arguably, he should—but what I liked best about his writing is how much more firmly planted, and grounded, he feels as a nerd than as a Dominican. And I would say he's definitely one, as the usual mot has it, worth keeping an eye on.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. Yeah, love the language, voice, the way he uses pop culture as a bridge betw DR culture and his other readers. But the guy characters do feel more complex, fully realized. I like his start w/ the sister but he gives that storyline up and the mom is more mythic, legendary, than anything else. I need to read more of his stuff.

  2. That's a great point -- he's much better on the males than the women. But so much fun to read!