The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Wow! - or in the words of dear Oscar as a rough estimate " was that copacetic or What! "
For my enjoyment this was a very fine work of kaleidoscopic fiction . But as soon as I say fiction I have to pause to realise there is so much historical data in the clever footnotes to give it a social history feel as well. I loved the background - the larger than life stories about the Dominican Republic - the small and big players - I learnt so much I didnt know about the Diaspora of that part of the world and especially the extent of the migration to the east coast of the USA . There is a lot of toing and froing by the main characters in the book between New Jersey, New York and the DR - and one gets the impression this happens with Puerto Rico, Haiti and Cuba as well - a very bustling, active part of the world which it was eye opening to read about in this well crafted stylish work.

The language in the work ( with Spanish phrases lightly peppered throughout the strong American English ) is a delight and adds to the colour and vibrancy of the settings and feel . Language is a special feature of this inventive novel - Fine English, Spanish, Patois and American slang words and phrases - all combined in this heady linguistic , migrant story. As an example of the unique strength of the prose - it can be noted that even though the Latino male libido is ever present in the stories , I dont recall seeing the word Macho written at all. It is an original in so many ways.

A major theme in the work is Oscar's growing up - he is a nerd who likes reading and watching science fiction , anime and playing computer games who has poor success with women but who has the yearnings of a great lover and hero . Although he suffers often in his tender and teen years he is lovable and his family are very protective of him.

The book is constructed around individual family member stories over three generations which make up the history of Oscar and his family - both in DR and the USA. These stories are riveting , often harrowing when set in the Trujillo years , however leavened with humour and the very earthy and often surprising scenarios.

The male narrator is a part of the story and associated with the family - although we know relatively less about him. The dialogue fits in neatly with his story telling and adds to the linguistic energy . Even though it is a book which is ostensibly a lot about males and their sexual concerns - the females are strong , well drawn and vital to the enjoyment and verisimilitude of the work.

A very fine book indeed is my judgement and I am really glad I read it. It won the recent Pulitzer for fiction , the two before if I remember correctly being March by Geraldine Brooks and The Road by Cormac McCarthy - two exceptional works as well. Especially The Road I must say. So it is a formidible prize and Diaz is fitting in that company.


John Kennedy said...

I would agree with you pretty well 100% on this one, Faye. Like you, I am glad I read it. Had I just picked it up in a library or bookshop I would probably not have bothered, especially as the first lines of the 'blurb' describe it as 'Maria Vergas Llosa meets Star Trek meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanya West', a formula which in my experience can usually be translated as 'a confused shambles which imitates several major writers, never well'.

'The brief wondrous life' is a powerful, funny, sad, and moving book. We do come to care about Oscar, although at first he seems to be little more than a cruel caricature. The evocation of Hispanic immigrant life in New York, and of the appalling Dominican Republic, may be a bit over-exuberant but it is evaocative, funny, and horrifying. (Trujillo does seem to have been a monster, though even today he has his admirers for what he did to 'develop' the DR - Stalin and Franco have their admirers too.)

I was interested in what you say about the female characters. The perspective struck me as very male, but I found them reasonably convincing.

One small complaint: I do not know Spanish, and even with fair to reasonable French and some Latin and Italian I was often baffled.

John Kennedy

Niki said...

I agree with all you've said, too, Faye. I think it's an absolutely terrific book, and well deserving of the Pulitzer for fiction. It's truly original, although as you say, John, all that Spanish was frustrating (but I'm a lazy reader, and didn't make the effort to find a Spanish dictionary to read alongside it as I probably should have.) I'm also glad you liked it, Faye, because I know I'm the one who suggested you read it!

I had been told the book was magic realism, a genre I don't much care for, so would have avoided it had my book group not chosen to read it. I'm so glad I read it -- think what joys (and sorrows) I'd have missed otherwise. I certainly wouldn't call it magic realism. I do, however, suspect there are significant autobiographical elements to the story, though I don't really know. Do either of you?

I'm frustrated in writing this comment because I want to go back and read bits of it, knowing that doing so will prompt further comments from me. But alas, I've loaned my copy to a friend. Stay tuned -- if I can track it down, I'll return with more.

Suffice to say that I think it's a rich and substantial work, one that will clearly stand the test of time -- and perhaps shape the work of future novelists.

Niki Kallenberger

Niki said...
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Faye said...

Dear Niki and John,
Given the incredible scenes and euphoria over Obama's election - I thought it very interesting to ponder anew this strong Hispanic American book we have just read in that context. We know through all the commentating on the election that citizens of the US with Hispanic / Latino backgrounds now make up the largest ethnic grouping in America and that in some states they were in part responsible for Obamas election. Like all good authors Diaz has taught me to understand more about this social situation than the mere stats can do.

Niki , i am really glad I read it and thank you for the suggestion.

Like both of you , I was thrown a little bit by the Spanish and didnt resort to a dictionary - but should have. I thought it fun however when I learnt the family titles and diminutives and some of the sense of the phrasing through context and repitition. It was a good puzzle and added yet another enjoyment dimension to this multi faceted book.

Have you any more thoughts on the male/female strengths of the characterisations? I had suggested that in fact women characters were very significant , strong and indivualistic - despite the ever present male libido parts of the story line. I think there is a case that can be made there with some stronger analyical skills than mine. But whatever - such a lively, humanistic, entertaining book.

I havent checked up on the autobiographical possibilities - I feel however there is the usual amalgam with characters . Diaz himself , as we know, talked when in Sydney of his use of libraries throughout his childhood and the important influence of them in his life . So drawing Oscar's passion for reading etc wouldnt have been hard. Must look up more about him however.

Thanks for the great comments.