It seems that books (and movies, for that matter) that have received countless critical accolades and perhaps an award or two don’t live up to the hype given them. At least, not in my opinion. This certainly isn’t always true but it happens often enough to be deemed a trend. Such was my experience with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008. First and foremost, I want to say that I liked the book and I do recommend it for any reader who may be interested. That being said, it didn’t move me.
Diaz’s novel is a chronicle of the life of overweight, geeky sci-fi nerd Oscar de Leon, the son of a Dominican immigrant born in New York, raised in New Jersey but who doesn’t quite fit in anywhere. Oscar defies two very different stereotypes: 1) that sexually frustrated nerds obsessed with LotR and Dungeons and Dragons are white boys and 2) that Dominican men are suave machismos capable of charming the panties off of any girl, no matter how beautiful. Oscar is fat, awkward, uses a vocabulary so rich, his peers hardly understand him and seems to be followed by something called the fuku, a sort of Dominican curse initially struck unto his grandfather that followed his mother all the way to America and adhered itself to Oscar’s sad life.
But this story isn’t Oscar’s alone. It’s also a chronicle of his familial history. It tells his grandfather’s tale, a particularly tragic story of how he came to obtain this curse in an effort to save his wife and children from the wicked Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. Oscar’s mother’s story is also told in great length along with a shorter section devoted to his sister, Lola. His grandfather’s, mother’s and sister’s stories are all told in as much (if not more) detail as his own and, in my opinion, are more interesting. Oscar’s family history kept my attention but his story lost me a little, in particular in the book’s final section, wherein Oscar meets his violent and untimely end. The title forewarns his fate; his life certainly is brief. It’s the wondrous part that didn’t hold up. I found Oscar’s tale uninspired and after all his family experienced and overcame, his choices seemed undeserving. Perhaps that is the point, though – that the middle class American children of immigrants don’t live up to the dreams of their parents and grandparents who’ve overcome impossible obstacles to give them more.
Diaz interjects each chapter with lengthy footnotes, science fiction and fantasy references, comic book analogies and various Spanish phrases (I continuously had to stop to look up English translations – I knew I should have taken Spanish in high school!), proving that he shares his title character’s love of sci-fi/fantasy literature. He also switches narratives; most of the book is told by a narrator who’s hardly a side character, Oscar’s college roommate and his sister’s on-and-off-again boyfriend, Yunior. Lola tells her own story and both Oscar’s grandfather’s and mother’s tales seem to be narrated by an unknown omniscient narrator (though I think it’s still Yunior, it’s never explained how he knows these intimate details of their lives). It’s a novel about identity, masculinity, family and the hardships overcome by the ancestors of American children who may or may not squander the opportunities that were so hard-won by their parents and grandparents. It’s well-written and evenly paced and overall, I did like it. But its conclusion felt a little anti-climactic for my taste.