The brief and wondrous life of Oscar Wao

It’s another Oscar! I can’t seem to get away from them Oscars these days😀 Unfortunately, despite what the title claims, his life wasn’t all that brief (OK, maybe dieing before 30, with the shit kicked out of you, in a cane field in DR might qualify for brief) but it definitely wasn’t wondrous. And for the first 50 pages or so, I pretty much hated the book. But then yesterday, I sat down to read it – really read it, not just take in a couple of pages on the bus – and I found that I simply could not put it down. Turns out, by page 330 – I really like it; in fact, I love it.

I got it after seeing Junot Diaz on the Colbert Report and I tried reading it then, but I gave up after 20 or so pages, thinking all the talk about the Dominican Tolkien (both in Colbert’s interview and in other reviews) wasn’t an exactly accurate description. I mean, I kinda like geeks, but Oscar is a nerd, and this trifecta might just be too much. And, for all his nerdiness, all Oscar really wants is to get laid – the whole writer business could be just a way for him to become relevant and famous and get girls. Which might be as strong a motivator as any, but I’m not sure it’s worth reading something just for the frustrations of some sad and overweight – albeit smart – kid. Need I say that his love chasing (yes, love, not just sex, since he turns down his cousins’ offers to take him to brothels) is what gets him killed? I think not – it’s not even a spoiler, since the ending is hinted at throughout the entire book. But Oscar is not even the main character, that honor should go to the curse or the destiny that transcends them all – and there’s a lot more to the book than his slow and predictable descent into depression.

Oscar’s story is narrated by his sister Lola and Yunior – his sort of friend and one of her boyfriends – and it’s entwined with the story of the whole Cabral clan: Beli, the mother, who was orphaned, grew up in the poorest and most brutal part of DR before being rescued by Nena Inca (her aunt, who acted as the only mother she ever knew) and who suffered through 3 heart breaks that left her a though and not-to-mess-with woman; Abelard, his wife & daughters – her real family – who all perished under the Trujillo regime and Lola, who shared her mother’s rebellious streak and knack for heartbreak and ran away from home. Above them all, the fuku, the family curse (which Mr Diaz claims is probably the whole Dominican nation’s curse, to be saddled with such a bloody and violent history) is looming, seemingly guiding their lives towards an inescapable disaster. There’s a lot of politics, a lot of Trujillo-era vignettes – and this is the most interesting part of the book for me. Sadly, I don’t know much (actually, it’s closer to nothing at all) about Latin America dictatorships, but, just as the European ones, I find them historically interesting and intriguing (and perhaps more fearful than the European ones, because they seem to operate under a complete lawlessness) and, eventually, I’d like to read more about them. The modern history we learn in school is very Europe-centered – and it leaves kids (like me😉 ) with an incomplete image of the world.

What I also found pretty hard to get into was the ghetto atmosphere, the back and forth between Spanish and English (which only served as a reminder that I still haven’t taken up Spanish) and the very colloquial tone of the book. But, by the end, I couldn’t imagine a different way in which it  would be told, because any other way would have made it pretentious and patronizing. It’s full to the brim with pop culture references (even the title character’s name – Wao – is a play on Oscar Wilde), mostly from the comic book/fantasy world and the Trujillo regime is constantly compared with Sauron’s reign (his minions are wraiths, the more powerful one is the Witch King of Angmar, and the whole DR is really a devastated Mordor). It feels slightly wild and all over the place – but only because it’s got a beating heart; and it wounds up tightly and naturally.

It won the Pulitzer in 2008, so there’s a lot of reviews to be found. I’ll just leave you with the NYT one, and with a book excerpt from The New Yorker – read it!

~ by ameer on April 25, 2010.

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