Wednesday, December 12, 2007
books: the brief wondrous life of oscar wao
To piggyback on yesterday's (sort of) post, a book that is certain to make the list of my favorite literary releases of 2007 is Junot Díaz’s debut novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Narrated by an old college roommate named Junior, "Oscar Wao" is, among other things, the story of Oscar LaInca - an overweight, sci-fi reading, Dungeons and Dragons playing, "ghetto nerd," whose nickname is Spanglish for Oscar Wilde (meant as an insult, alluding to both Wilde's girth and sexuality). Although Dominican, Oscar completely defies the machismo stereotype, and given that he lives in the more-than-a-little-rough Paterson, NJ, Oscar spends most of his time in his bedroom where he can safely escape behind his Akira posters, Tolkien and role-playing games when he isn't in the midst of an obsessive and wholly one-sided love affair with some disinterested female.

As can be easily inferred from the title, Oscar's life is brief; yet, Junior must span two countries and three generations in order to tell the story of it. He begins by explaining that the LaInca family is said to have suffered from a powerful fuku (curse) earned when Oscar's grandfather angered Trujillo. Anticipating that most readers may have "missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history," Junior explains:
Trujillo, one of the twentieth century's most infamous dictators, ruled the Dominican Republic between 1930 and 1961 with an implacable ruthless brutality. A portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulato who bleached his skin, wore platform shoes, and had a fondness for Napoleon-ear haberdashery, Trujillo (known as El Jefe, the Failed Cattle Thief, and Fuckface) came to control nearly every aspect of the DR's political, cultural, social, and economic life through a potent (and familiar) mixture of violence, intimidation, massacre, rape, co-optation, and terror...He was our Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid, our One and Future Dictator, a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up.
The story of the Trujillo-era Dominican Republic becomes the backdrop for Díaz’s tale, which is equal parts coming-of-age novel, historical fiction, and epic family saga that seamlessly weaves hip-hop, feminism, mythology, science fiction and magical realism throughout.

And if I haven't made it clear enough by my rambling and overly long overview, I loved it. Admittedly, it took a little while for me to fully get into it, but was hooked come fifty pages in. I felt two sorts of sadness at the novel's conclusion: one for the sweet, brave, pathetic Oscar, and the other because I simply didn't want it to be over.

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Blogger Mary said...

Oh THANK YOU for reviewing this book! I keep hearing about how good it's supposed to be, but I hadn't managed to get past the sci-fi, dungeons and dragons bit and assumed it was of that sort of book. (I'm not a sci-fi fan.) Now I know to add it to my ever-growing book list!

Blogger paul said...

I'm glad you liked it and It's definitely on my to-read list. A slight correction though. Though it's certainly Diaz's debut novel, it's not really his "debut." He has a collection of short fiction called Drown that came out like ten years ago. It was quite the talk of the literary world when I was in grad school and it's pretty phenomenal. If you liked the novel, you should check it out.

Blogger cornshake said...

yes i love Drown. I think D and i both teach at least parts of it in our classes. and this book is on my list--right after Paul's copy of WHAT IS THE WHAT (thx, Paul!)

Blogger Mrs. White said...

Mary, I'm not a sci-fi fan AT ALL, but I still loved this book. Science fiction is really just used as a tool to make Oscar an outcast in his community.

And thanks for the correction, Paul. I meant to say that this was Diaz's debut "novel," not to imply it was his literary review. I've since made amends.

And cornshake, What is the What has a full dance card. I call it when you (and, of course Paul) are done!

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