Friday, March 13, 2009

Junot Diaz, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" (2007).

Once or twice a year a new author bounds upon the popular literature scene, and compels the attention of the rapidly shrinking American readership. Often the author gets a boost from Oprah Winfrey, and maximizes the profitability of the release. Sometimes a book gets its acclaim by winning a prestigious award, although this isn't as sure a means into the nation's consciousness as the aforementioned coronation via day-time talk show queen. I would hazard a guess that the proportion of society that can actually name the year's Pulitzer Prize* and National Book Award winners is less than one half a percent. I make a point of reading a lot of fiction, and (to be honest with you), I can't do it.

Generally books come into my hands through one of two means- either someone I know personally makes a recommendation and/or loan, or I read about it on Amazon. Rarely do I scour the shelves and discover stuff I have not heard about previously. There's only so much time in my day to devote to reading nowadays, and I want as close to a sure thing as possible. My habits are increasingly self-directed, and that's why it's a real pleasure when I end up liking a friend's suggested title. That's the case with Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Even though I had seen that several of my newer favorite authors liked Diaz's writing, it might have been a long time before I actually sat down to read it.

Ultimately I'm glad I did. Normally I tend to resist writers who are transplanted Americans. I don't know why this should be so, and I'm certainly not proud of it. It's a very provincial attitude. I guess I'd just typically assume that I wouldn't get into a story unless I have a degree of cultural identification with the author. In the case of the Dominican-born Diaz, this would have been a real loss. Not only does the main character (Oscar De Leon) hail from Paterson, NJ (a mere hour-and-a-half from my own hometown) , but he's also heavily informed by the type of comic books and culture that I digested growing up. The kid may be black, nerdy, fat, and an ugly virgin... yet somehow he strikes certain chords of recognition.

Oscar is more than just a late-bloomer. He's truly at risk of never blooming at all. Aside from his mother, sister, and grandmother, he doesn't have a lot of admirers. He spends his time writing science fiction and fiddling around with role playing games. That doesn't mean he doesn't have the conventional needs of a red-blooded American (let alone Dominican) male. He just doesn't have any sort of success with the ladies. In this respect, his misfortune mirrors that of his broader family. While his clan doesn't share his clumsiness with the opposite sex (in fact they are all players), they do seem cursed to eat shit. Somehow they manage to run afoul of a motley assortment of genuinely bad actors.

Diaz is not merely concerned with telling Oscar's tale, but rather with sharing an informal history of his native country, and the brutal regime of the dictator Rafael Trujillo. I've heard about the type of atrocities dictators of banana republics can visit upon their people, but this guy was extreme. I'm assuming that the historical context that Diaz provides throughout his novel is accurate, and that the events occurred as he portrays them. If nothing else, reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao should make the reader grateful for his/her life. The entire DeLeon family endures such misery from an apparent fukú (curse) that appears to be supernaturally merciless. Still it makes for some rip-roaring reading.

* Diaz won the coveted prize in 2008.

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Blogger Dagrims said...

A wondrous, and not-too-brief novel.

9:53 PM  
Anonymous Marc V. said...

I just finished this book today! and have to agree the accolades Diaz received this past year are definitely well-earned. I can't remember the last time I laughed out loud so many times, and how intense the historical accounts of the DR were.
Because of my D&D/sci-fi/comics background, all of the references were thoroughly enjoyable. To any former (or current) nerd, geek, or fanboy - check this one out. It will move you.

12:34 AM  

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