The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (2007)

This book is bizarre.  I’m not even sure if I liked it or hated it–it’s that difficult to judge.  According to the title, it’s about Oscar Wao, a nerdy, overweight Dominican kid growing up in New Jersey.  But really, it’s about his mother, his sister, their grandparents, and the one relative who remains in the Dominican Republic.  Oscar seems rather secondary to their story.  This is one reason it was an easy book to put down in the first 75 pages–I just didn’t care that much about Oscar and his troubles.  But the narrative picked up and drew me in once it backtracked to the story of Oscar’s mother and her family living under the Trujillo dictatorship in the DR.  Here, I was enthralled.  Some readers are  bothered by the extensive footnotes on several of the pages, but I found them fascinating–sometimes more so than the narrative itself.  After reading Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of Butterflies, a tragic and true story about Trujillo and his reign of fear, I found the middle section of this book to be the most compelling part of the story.  The characters seem more believable, the emotion more real, and the writing much more fluid.  In other sections, Diaz seems like he’s trying too hard.  For what, I’m not sure.  He throws the f-word and the n-word around so much that it’s simply tiresome after a short while.  Like he wants to be so raw, so different, so macho—but it comes off as immature and sophmoric.

Some things I liked: lots of literary references and lots of unique vocabulary words.  These are part of Oscar’s character–part of his nerdy ways.  Also part of Oscar’s character are the many references to pop culture, video games, and sci-fi novels and films.  I missed most of them–and it seems like he often used more than he needed–but many were interesting.  In addition to his overuse of foul language, Diaz also uses hundreds of spanish phrases, all untranslated.  Sort of like he wants to throw his own “Dominican-ness” in our faces.  For what purpose, I’m again not sure.  Seems to be part of his macho factor which comes out in both the main narrator and the author.  Sometimes, it’s hard to tell who’s narrating the story: Yunior, the on and off boyfriend of Oscar’s sister, or Diaz himself?

This is a creative, unique story told in many voices over many years with Dominican history and culture woven into the sometimes choppy narrative.  It’s interesting, but not brilliant.  How it won the Pulitzer Prize is beyond me.   (fiction)

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