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18 June 2009 / April

A brief and (not so) wondrous book review

Things you should not be afraid of if you read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz.

  1. A lot of obscenity.
  2. A lot of urban slang.
  3. A lot of Spanish.
  4. A lot of sci-fi/fantasy references.
  5. A lot of confusion.  Particularly for people who don’t live in the city, don’t speak Spanish, and don’t read science fiction.  (… Hey there.)

As confusing as all the unexplained references/foreign languages may be, one thing they add for certain is authenticity.  Huge, overflowing buckets of authenticity.

Speaking of authenticity, let’s talk about those footnotes, because god are they long and verbose and packed with historical context.  Which reminds me of certain textbooks that I’ve become quite familiar with over the past couple years of high school.

But once you read the very first footnote, which describes Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic, for the benefit of “those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history” (I don’t think I even got two seconds, honestly), you realize that this is no ordinary historical writing.

Famous for changing ALL THE NAMES of ALL THE LANDMARKS in the Dominican Republic to honor himself […]; for building one of the largest militaries in the hemisphere (dude had bomber wings, for fuck’s sake); for fucking every hot girl in sight, even the wives of his subordinates, thousands upon thousands upon thousands of women; […] for stripping friends and allies of their positions and properties for no reason at all; and for his almost supernatural abilities.

And so on.

The first part of this book was almost a little too close to home for me.  It details the childhood and teenagehood of Oscar, a completely socially inept nerd who uses a lot of big words and spents more time fantasizing about members of the opposite sex than actually interacting with them.  But who is in fact (ah, but of course) capable of great love.

It had the density of a dwarf-motherfucking-star and at times he was a hundred percent sure it would drive him mad.  The only thing that came close was how he felt about his books; only the combined love he had for everything he’d read and everything he hoped to write came even close.

Eventually, to put it bluntly, it is this love that ruins Oscar.  And I do mean ruins.  (Arguably, this is a spoiler, so sorry– but come on, it is called The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.)

As we are taken from the Dominican Republic to “Nueva York,” through the lives of Oscar’s sister, mother, and grandfather and the curse (tellingly named fukú) that living under the regime of Trujillo has put on the family, the tone of the novel darkens considerably and its scope broadens.  Gradually, it becomes not about what one human will do for love, but what all humans will do, and endure, for love.  Which, in case you’re wondering, is a lot.

But this isn’t doing Oscar Wao any justice at all.  Because while the theme, like all themes, is cliché*, the book is anything but.  Glancing at the blurbs on the back of the book, I note that Lev Grossman seems to be in concordance, as he has called it “an immigrant-family saga for people who don’t read immigrant-family sagas.”  Though of course, I wouldn’t know, because I don’t read immigrant-family sagas.

* This reminds me of my review of DFW’s This is Water, which I wrote as sort of a Tattler exclusive but which I may post here at some point.

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