What better way to initiate a new year (or new decade, really) than to review a book that has been universally praised since its release in 2007? Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as topping or placing high on plenty of year-end and decade-end lists. NYT critic Michiko Kakutani gushed that it was “Mario Vargas Llosa meets “Star Trek” meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West,” an apt description, we suppose, although it’s more Lord of the Rings than Star Trek, really. The book is, in short, already beloved, and we liked it as well (even if it doesn’t quite stick its ending).
Oscar Wao loosely centers on a fat Dominican-American nerd named Oscar, but really he’s just a complex prop for Díaz to tell the story of the Dominican diaspora during (and after) the brutal regime of Rafael Trujillo. Obese and obsessed with fantasy novels, sci-fi, and role-playing games, Oscar is girl-bane, repellent to the opposite sex–completely the opposite of the male Dominican ideal. In this sense, he doesn’t fit in with his gorgeous mother Belicia or his athletic sister Lola, but that doesn’t stop them from putting him at the center of their lives. Lola’s on-again-off-again boyfriend Yunior narrates the book; he often compares himself to The Watcher, a fitting simile given his ability to infiltrate the psyches of characters and historical figures alike. We might as well go ahead and note that if you didn’t catch the reference to the Marvel Comics character The Watcher, chances are you’ll need to look up many of this book’s myriad allusions to nerd culture. Díaz uses The Lord of the Rings in particular as a template throughout the book, framing large parts of the book’s Trujillo narrative as a good vs evil epic. We particularly enjoyed these parts, which mix self-deprecating humor with the dire seriousness of Trujillo’s inhuman reign. The novel moves freely from the 1940s to the 1990s, measuring the toll of Trujillo’s dictatorship in each of the characters’ lives over four generations. Tellingly, Trujillo is one of the book’s most well-drawn characters, and even if he’s depicted as cartoonishly evil at times, his crimes are treated with utter seriousness. The narrative of Oscar’s mother Beli is also fascinating, particularly in the manner Díaz reveals her story, beginning essentially backwards with her contemporary life in New Jersey and moving as the narrative progresses to her earliest days in the DR. The story of her father Abelard was our favorite section. It comes late in the novel and helps to tie together several missing threads.
How Yunior is privy to all this info nevertheless remains a mystery but his voice engages and sustains the novel throughout, plot holes be damned. Language is the key constituent to Oscar Wao and a pretentious prick of a reviewer might call the novel’s mix of Dominican slang, literary academic jargon, and nerd-speak a dialogic carnival of intermingling voices. But we won’t do that. Suffice to say that the novel’s commanding voice compels and sustains long reading sessions and kept us up late for a few nights last week. The narrative voice of Oscar Wao is so strong and compelling, in fact, that it makes up for the novel’s greatest weakness–the character of Oscar himself, who lacks complexity or detail, especially when contrasted with the other characters in the novel. In a sense, Díaz’s master narrative might be reduced to Oscar’s epic quest to get laid, with a heavy dash of DR history thrown into the mix. But that’s too reductive. Still, as the novel dashes to its epiphanic climax (don’t worry, no big spoilers here), it’s hard to accept–or even understand–Oscar’s heroic metamorphosis. The transformation feels unearned–for either Díaz or Oscar–and it leads to a weak, lazy ending. (Related aside: We can’t help but compare this novel now to Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, another multigenerational/multicultural novel (another dialogic carnival of voices, says the academic prig) that doesn’t really pull off its conclusion. But we liked both books anyway). Recommended.