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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Paperback – September 2, 2008
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"Díaz finds a miraculous balance. He cuts his barn-burning comic-book plots (escape, ruin, redemption) with honest, messy realism, and his narrator speaks in a dazzling hash of Spanish, English, slang, literary flourishes, and pure virginal dorkiness." —New York Magazine
"Genius. . . a story of the American experience that is giddily glorious and hauntingly horrific. And what a voice Yunior has. His narration is a triumph of style and wit, moving along Oscar de Leon's story with cracking, down-low humor, and at times expertly stunning us with heart-stabbing sentences. That Díaz's novel is also full of ideas, that [the narrator's] brilliant talking rivals the monologues of Roth's Zuckerman—in short, that what he has produced is a kick-ass (and truly, that is just the word for it) work of modern fiction—all make The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao something exceedingly rare: a book in which a new America can recognize itself, but so can everyone else." —San Francisco Chronicle
"Astoundingly great. . . Díaz has written. . . a mixture of straight-up English, Dominican Spanish, and hieratic nerdspeak crowded with references to Tolkien, DC Comics, role-playing games, and classic science fiction. . . In lesser hands Oscar Wao would merely have been the saddest book of the year. With Díaz on the mike, it's also the funniest." —Time
"Superb, deliciously casual and vibrant, shot through with wit and insight. The great achievement of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is Díaz's ability to balance an intimate multigenerational story of familial tragedy. . . The past and present remain equally in focus, equally immediate, and Díaz's acrobatic prose toggles artfully between realities, keeping us enthralled with all." —The Boston Globe
"Panoramic and yet achingly personal. It's impossible to categorize, which is a good thing. There's the epic novel, the domestic novel, the social novel, the historical novel, and the 'language' novel. People talk about the Great American Novel and the immigrant novel. Pretty reductive. Díaz's novel is a hell of a book. It doesn't care about categories. It's densely populated; it's obsessed with language. It's Dominican and American, not about immigration but diaspora, in which one family's dramas are entwined with a nation's, not about history as information but as dark-force destroyer. Really, it's a love novel. . . His dazzling wordplay is impressive. But by the end, it is his tenderness and loyalty and melancholy that breaks the heart. That is wondrous in itself." —Los Angeles Times
"Díaz's writing is unruly, manic, seductive. . . In Díaz's landscape we are all the same, victims of a history and a present that doesn't just bleed together but stew. Often in hilarity. Mostly in heartbreak." —Esquire
"The Dominican Republic [Díaz] portrays in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a wild, beautiful, dangerous, and contradictory place, both hopelessly impoverished and impossibly rich. Not so different, perhaps, from anyone else's ancestral homeland, but Díaz's weirdly wonderful novel illustrates the island's uniquely powerful hold on Dominicans wherever they may wander. Díaz made us wait eleven years for this first novel and boom!—it's over just like that. It's not a bad gambit, to always leave your audience wanting more. So brief and wondrous, this life of Oscar. Wow." —The Washington Post Book World
"Terrific. . . High-energy. . . It is a joy to read, and every bit as exhilarating to reread." —Entertainment Weekly
"Now that Díaz's second book, a novel called The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, has finally arrived, younger writers will find that the bar. And some older writers—we know who we are—might want to think about stepping up their game. Oscar Wao shows a novelist engaged with the culture, high and low, and its polyglot language. If Donald Barthelme had lived to read Díaz, he surely would have been delighted to discover an intellectual and linguistic omnivore who could have taught even him a move or two." —Newsweek
"Few books require a 'highly flammable' warning, but The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz's long-awaited first novel, will burn its way into your heart and sizzle your senses. Díaz's novel is drenched in the heated rhythms of the real world as much as it is laced with magical realism and classic fantasy stories." —USA Today
"Dark and exuberant. . . this fierce, funny, tragic book is just what a reader would have hoped for in a novel by Junot Díaz." —Publishers Weekly
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Cons: Don’t buy the Kindle edition. You need the hard-copy with the footnotes right on the page for you to read right as they come up in the book. There are a lot of footnotes, and they’re 100% needed to fully enjoy/understand the book.
What we have here, is the story of a nerd - a fat (incredibly fat), ugly, intellectual, verbose nerd whose parents (Dad left when Oscar was but a wee thing) came from the Dominican Republic but who grows up in Paterson, New Jersey, and who dreams of just two things: love (ideally including the physical sort) and becoming the Dominican Tolkien.
He is, as you might expect, a rather frustrated young man.
Whole sections of the book, though, are not directly about Oscar, but about his family: his mama, Belicia De Leon (nee Cabral), the child of a cursed family; his sister Lola; Beli's father Abelard, who fell afoul of Trujillo and met the end that tended to meet such afoul-fallers. Perhaps a third of the book is directly about Oscar de Leon (who acquires the nickname Wao when some Domincan homies apparently have never heard of, and cannot correctly pronounce, Wilde).
It's written, mostly, in a brilliant English, but with large quantities of Spanish, Dominican Spanish slang, and I don't know what-all else. (I learned a number of Spanish words during the course of the book, some of which are not for use in polite company. Also the N-word pops up far more often than a gringo blanco like myself is comfortable with.)
Most of the story is narrated by Díaz's stand-in, a Dominico called Yunior, which raises questions of how he knows some of the things he seems to know. Indeed, the final chapter reads to me as something tacked on by Yunior to give Oscar a bit of a happy ending. Your take on this may vary.
Anyway, a lot of the book takes place in the Dominican Republic of Trujillo and his successors; the climax occurs during the unacknowledged occupation of the DR by America in the '80s; and it would be incredibly grim if it were not also incredibly funny. I can't decide whether it's a funny book that happens to be sad, or a sad book that happens to be funny. It's funny that way.
What propels the story more than Yunior's voice is the characters. They sparkle with life even when terrible things are happening to them, and they change, both as time passes, and as we get to know them better. (Mama Beli, as we first see her through Oscar's then Lola's eyes, seems like a terrible person; then we learn her story and everything just shifts.)
It is a terrible, a tragic story with the inevitability that makes a tragedy tragic and not merely bathetic. You won't go far wrong picking it up - from a library, or a used book emporium, or some such, please.
Top international reviews
I’m no prude and love boobs as much as the next reader, but the book falls into the classic trope of male writers who can’t write women without describing how they look naked. Even when describing female children. Try and describe any of the characters without mentioning sex or how they look, and you’ll struggle to write a paragraph. They’re all quite one dimensional.
I also find books that lapse into another language faux intellectual - it doesn’t really add to the narrative but does exclude anyone without a pretty decent grasp of Spanish.
This is not an easy book to read: the book's structure is complex, switching narrators, moving in and out of history. In addition there is the regular use of Spanish slang, of swear words and of geeky references to Sci Fi, fantasy and Japanese anime. For this British reader I could have done with a lexicon.
Nevertheless I found the effort of reading this book all worthwhile. It was fascinating to explore a history which I knew nothing about and to watch as the lives of Oscar and his other family members unfolded.