Book Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
While I can appreciate the literary merit of this book, I didn't love it. The story frustrated me.
For one thing, the title character was technically the main character, but he's not the narrator. You don't learn the narrator's identity until Chapter 4...and these were long chapters. And three of them didn't directly involve Oscar.
Chapter 1 did introduce the overweight ghetto nerd Oscar during his childhood and teen years yearning for love, but never finding it. Then Chapter 2 shifted to the story of Oscar's sister Lola, which ran somewhat concurrently with Oscar's teen years. But then Chapter 3 time warped to the 1950s Dominican Republic with Oscar and Lola's mother as the focus.
Chapter 4 brang us back to Oscar at Rutgers and his continuing miserable existence. Then Chapter 5 went back even further in time to Oscar and Lola's grandfather in the 1940s Dominican Republic under the dictator Rafael Trujillo. Chapters 7 and 8 returned to Oscar's sad life.
And while Oscar did have a brief life, it was not wondrous until the end. Some people belittle the beauty Oscar experienced at the end. I'm much more inclined to believe that after living an incredibly lonely existence where Oscar was continuously ostracized, humiliated, mocked, and bullied for being a "ghetto-nerd" who valued intelligence, he was blissfully contented to be appreciated for who he was.
Why so many narrative shifts?
The fuku. Yeah, what? The book's introduction explained fuku as the family curse. The narrator actually believed that by writing this tale he was creating a counterspell to the curse.
Okay, so I had heard that there was some magical realism in this book. Not my favorite genre, but I know it's one way to get a literary snob to read a bit of science-fiction or fantasy. And the fuku began generations ago with Oscar's grandfather, so the idea was that to understand Oscar, you must understand his family history.
As someone who does not subscribe to such a notion, I found the plot hard to take. You are what you make of yourself. I found myself sympathizing with Oscar one minute and then shaking my head at him the next. Just leave the ghetto. Leave Patterson.
Even his sister sarcastically snarked, "Why would anyone want to go anywhere when they have New Jersey?"
I mean, Oscar, you had an imaginary mongoose leading you away! Protecting you.
Side note: That piece of magical realism I did like. Ever since reading "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" as a kid, I like the image of the vigilant mongoose. And the mongoose shows up several times as a kind of guardian for the family.
But no. Oscar would not leave. At least not to any place better. His escape plan was the Dominican Republic where the book's physical and verbal abuse just ramped up even more.
Oscar was far from the image of masculinity dictated by his family and his culture. Watching this spectacularly intelligent nerd flail about was just painful. He truly belonged no where.
In what I'm guessing was an attempt to make certain readers (middle class white people like me) empathize with Oscar, the book is full of Spanglish. Being a middle-class kid from New Jersey who was transplanted into Tennessee, I took French during junior high and high school. I had no idea what many of the phrases meant.
Listening to the audiobook helped here because I could at least infer an emotion from the inflection or tone of the reader's voice. I was actually reaching a point of true exasperation when I remembered a professional development activity I participated in. The presenter made us read an article in a made-up language. Irritating. Just like trying to read English when English is not your first language.
I wish this book was out when I was in graduate school. I would love to read this book in an academic setting with robust discussions. But reading it for my own pleasure was just depressing.
It had a few glimmers of hope. Diaz made it clear that storytelling heals. Oscar's entire life revolved around reading and writing. And Oscar's best friend, eventually, embraced the same love of storytelling and would write, even in his spare time. He saved everything of Oscar's in refrigerators...because they're fireproof. He was waiting for Oscar's niece to come to him to learn about her family, and perhaps end the curse.
Yeah, by the end of the book I was cursing the curse. Let this ridiculous notion that anyone's life is pre-determined go. But, again, Diaz anticipated that some reader's would not invest in this family curse. At some point he wrote something to the effect that it didn't matter if you believed in the fuku because the fuku believed in you.
And how does anyone reason with such fervent figments of the imagination?
So while I am glad that I read this book for my Reading Challenge (I lived in Patterson when I was a baby so this book covers the "book that takes place in your hometown" category), I can't say that I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good story. If you're looking for a book club selection, then yes. A satisfying book for pleasure reading? No.