The Brief Wondrous History of Oscar Wao

Jackie had asked for This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz, a book and an author I was not familiar with.  When I got it for her, I thought, if I didn’t know Jackie better, that it sounded like a self help book.  It’s not; it’s a collection of short stories.  She really enjoyed it which made me investigate Mr. Diaz more.  When I googled him, the first word that screamed at me was “Pulitzer.”  Mr. Diaz had my interest.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a great first novel.  Maybe not for everyone but certainly for me.  Oscar is a geek extraordinaire who lives in Paterson NJ after his mother emigrated from the Dominican Republic.  Oscar is very overweight, lives in a dream world of sci-fi, comic books and role playing games.  He falls in love with just about every woman he sees, even women terribly out of his league.  He fears he will be the first and only Dominican man to die a virgin.

Diaz uses tons of footnotes, telling us the back story of Rafael Trujillo, which made me realize how lacking my knowledge of Central American history is.  (I’ll rectify that someday, after I read all of Diaz first.)  He also writes parenthetically constantly (a man after my own heart.)  He is a poet with the language.  The heat in the DR is not just hot, it’s “beat you down hot.”  She could not just swear, she could “cuss the black off the crows.”  At the end of some of his footnotes, he’ll just start writing to the reader, which I mostly found charming.

The beginning of the book was all Oscar, poor sad doomed Oscar.  He loved the Lord of the Rings Trilogy so much he put a sign saying, “Speak, Friend, and enter” above the door to his dorm room at Rutgers, and in Elvish, of course.  I did like Diaz’s references to other books, from The Stand, It, Moby Dick, all things Tolkien, although after the tenth Mordor reference (“El Hefe dominated Santa Domingo like it was his own private Mordor.”) I was yelling at Diaz to go read another book.  I got absolutely none of his comic book references, since Marvel and I have never become acquainted.  There is a vast amount of Spanish in the book, which he never translates, but most of it is easy enough to suss out and I don’t know a bruja from a caudillo.

Just when you’re wondering if the entire book is going to be about whether Oscar ever gets laid, the focus switches to his sister, where we learn to hate their mother, until the focus switches again to the mother’s childhood, where we no longer hate her.

I liked the beginning to the book better than the end, which is getting commonplace with me no matter what new book I read.  He wrote about Oscar and his love for the puta he fell for when he went back to visit the DR, and felt the need to put an author’s note in, explaining why he wrote that to the blacks on the DR and why they thought it might not sit right.  That struck me as a shocking lack of confidence in himself.

I hope he has more than one novel in him because his wordplay is so wonderful.  I imagine he writes like he talks.  I’m very jealous of his writing students at MIT.  (Who knew they taught you how to write at MIT?)


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