My Five Star Friday recommendation, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a coming of age story, a family saga, historical fiction, and an examination of contemporary American life.
Summary: Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd who—from the New Jersey home he shares with his old world mother and rebellious sister—dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, finding love. But Oscar may never get what he wants. Blame the fukú—a curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, following them on their epic journey from Santo Domingo to the USA. Encapsulating Dominican-American history, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao opens our eyes to an astonishing vision of the contemporary American experience and explores the endless human capacity to persevere—and risk it all—in the name of love.
The novel is worth a first (second, or third) look if for no other reason as to learn why it won all those awards:
- 2008 Pulitzer Prize
- 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award
- 2008, Dayton Literary Peace Prize
- 2007 The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
- 2007 New York Magazine Best Novel
He is also the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, the PEN/Malamud Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the PEN/O. Henry Award.
“By the prologue’s end, it’s clear that this story of one poor guy’s cursed life will also be the story of how 500 years of historical and familial bad luck shape the destiny of its fat, sad, smart, lovable and short-lived protagonist. The book’s pervasive sense of doom is offset by a rich and playful prose that embodies its theme of multiple nations, cultures and languages…” Matthew Sharpe for Publishers Weekly
So read it, you must. But I first listened to the audio version. That worked well for me because Diaz fluidly switches between English, Spanish, American urban slang, and even science fiction jargon. Listening helped me appreciate the poetry and rhythm as well as glean meaning through inflection and context. However, the print version contains footnotes (!) providing definitions or explanations that I missed the first time. Since I’m not fluent in the idioms of Elvish and know less about the Marvel Universe, or otakuness, hearing passages such as the following enhanced the humor and tone of Diaz’s writing.
“[Oscar] Could write in Elvish, could speak Chakobsa, could differentiate between a Slan, a Dorsai, and a Lensman in acute detail, knew more about the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee, and was a role-playing game fanatic. (If only he’d been good at videogames it would have been a slam dunk but despite owning an Atari and an Intellivision he didn’t have the reflexes for it.) Perhaps if like me he’d been able to hide his otakuness maybe shit would have been easier for him, but he couldn’t. Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to.” (p. 21)
*otakuness:Otaku is a Japanese term used to refer to people with obsessive interests, particularly anime, manga, and video games.
Diaz explains how immigrants experience this intermingling of languages in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross:
“…..We don’t understand a word, we’ll just skip over it and keep going. But, you know, that’s like a basic part of communication, you know, unintelligibility. And so if you’re an immigrant, you’re so used to not being able to understand large chunks of any conversation, large chunks of the linguistic, cultural codes. And part of what I was trying to get at when writing this book is that, you know, I wanted everybody at one moment to kind of feel like an immigrant in this book, that there would be one language chain that you might not get. And that it was OK.” [Read or listen to the entire interview here.]
Multiculturalism and identity loop through the novel as Oscar seeks to integrate his Dominican and his American pop/urban/New Jersey identity. But none of us can truly understand the long reach our heritage has until we look back. Through Oscar we learn about the Dominican Republic and its own mix of cultures – the ‘real’ Dominicans and the Tano, those with African and Spanish descent. In case there’s any doubt, the Tano didn’t hold the status card.
I am not from the Dominican Republic nor have I studied the region’s history; so I found its not-so-long-ago history fascinating and heartbreaking. Specifically, the oppressive 30-year-rule by US Marine trained General Rafail Trujillo was marked by horrific human rights abuses ranging from murder to rape. Even a massacre against 20,000 Haitians only dented his international reputation.
Diaz grew as so many others did with parents who avoided talking about the horror of living under this regime. As a young man he sought more information. He learned from family members that most of the people in the Dominican Republic worked as informants for the secret police. He explained on NPR’s Fresh Air: “I heard … how one man was walking down the street eating an orange, and he threw the peel on the ground. At this time the Dominican Republic was one of the cleanest countries in the world. And the secret police arrested the guy who threw the orange peel on the ground and the three nearest people to him because they should have apprehended him. And all of them were whisked off to jail.”
But it’s the other delicious aspects of the book that keep the reader bouyed: the curse and how it affects Oscar and his family, the plight of being a nerd in high school, looking for love (with the capital L) in all the wrong places, and the inevitability of being injured for those crimes. Diaz tethers us with the humor as well as the tragedy.
“Genius…a story of the American experience that is giddily glorious and hauntingly horrific…That Díaz’s novel is also full of ideas, that [the narrator’s] brilliant talking rivals the monologues of Roth’s Zuckerman—in short, that what he has produced is a kick-ass (and truly, that is the just word for it) work of modern fiction—all make The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao something exceedingly rare: a book in which a new America can recognize itself, but so can everyone else.” —Oscar Villalon, San Francisco Chronicle
Happy Reading, Susan C.
Also by Junot Diaz: This is How You Lose Her Presents a collection of stories that explores the heartbreak and radiance of love as it is shaped by passion, betrayal, and the echoes of intimacy.
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