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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Paperback – September 2, 2008
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Amazon Best of the Month, September 2007: It's been 11 years since Junot Díaz's critically acclaimed story collection, Drown, landed on bookshelves and from page one of his debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, any worries of a sophomore jinx disappear. The titular Oscar is a 300-pound-plus "lovesick ghetto nerd" with zero game (except for Dungeons & Dragons) who cranks out pages of fantasy fiction with the hopes of becoming a Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien. The book is also the story of a multi-generational family curse that courses through the book, leaving troubles and tragedy in its wake. This was the most dynamic, entertaining, and achingly heartfelt novel I've read in a long time. My head is still buzzing with the memory of dozens of killer passages that I dog-eared throughout the book. The rope-a-dope narrative is funny, hip, tragic, soulful, and bursting with desire. Make some room for Oscar Wao on your bookshelf--you won't be disappointed. --Brad Thomas Parsons --This text refers to the Mass Market Paperback edition.
From Publishers Weekly
SignatureReviewed by Matthew SharpeAreader might at first be surprised by how many chapters of a book entitled The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao are devoted not to its sci fi–and–fantasy-gobbling nerd-hero but to his sister, his mother and his grandfather. However, Junot Diaz's dark and exuberant first novel makes a compelling case for the multiperspectival view of a life, wherein an individual cannot be known or understood in isolation from the history of his family and his nation.Oscar being a first-generation Dominican-American, the nation in question is really two nations. And Dominicans in this novel being explicitly of mixed Taíno, African and Spanish descent, the very ideas of nationhood and nationality are thoughtfully, subtly complicated. The various nationalities and generations are subtended by the recurring motif of fukú, the Curse and Doom of the New World, whose midwife and... victim was a historical personage Diaz will only call the Admiral, in deference to the belief that uttering his name brings bad luck (hint: he arrived in the New World in 1492 and his initials are CC). By the prologue's end, it's clear that this story of one poor guy's cursed life will also be the story of how 500 years of historical and familial bad luck shape the destiny of its fat, sad, smart, lovable and short-lived protagonist. The book's pervasive sense of doom is offset by a rich and playful prose that embodies its theme of multiple nations, cultures and languages, often shifting in a single sentence from English to Spanish, from Victorian formality to Negropolitan vernacular, from Homeric epithet to dirty bilingual insult. Even the presumed reader shape-shifts in the estimation of its in-your-face narrator, who addresses us variously as folks, you folks, conspiracy-minded-fools, Negro, Nigger and plataneros. So while Diaz assumes in his reader the same considerable degree of multicultural erudition he himself possesses—offering no gloss on his many un-italicized Spanish words and expressions (thus beautifully dramatizing how linguistic borders, like national ones, are porous), or on his plethora of genre and canonical literary allusions—he does helpfully footnote aspects of Dominican history, especially those concerning the bloody 30-year reign of President Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. The later Oscar chapters lack the linguistic brio of the others, and there are exposition-clogged passages that read like summaries of a longer narrative, but mostly this fierce, funny, tragic book is just what a reader would have hoped for in a novel by Junot Diaz.Matthew Sharpe is the author of the novels Jamestown and The Sleeping Father. He teaches at Wesleyan University.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Mass Market Paperback edition.
Top customer reviews
The use of symbols in the story such as the faceless man or the mongoose created some level of abstraction and ambiguity, allowing the reader to make assumptions and fill in the details themselves. I also found the fatalistic tendencies of Dominicans pretty interesting such as when Oscar attempted to kill himself and then was confronted by Yunior, he attributed his suicidal attempt to fukú. An extension to this behavior can be observed in matters related to the dictatorship they lived under, where despite the ongoing repression by Trujillo, the Dominicans accepted this to be their fate and continued to be in denial that a problem even existed. This collective fatalistic behavior seems to explain why the Dominicans did not opt to stand up for their rights.
As both, an immigrant to US and a nerdy Dominican, Oscar struggled to find acceptance in both the circles, eventually finding it in neither. In that regard, the statement, ”You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto.” clearly highlighted his crisis of identity.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, by the end, I was left wondering if there was anything wondrous about Oscar Wao's life.
Almost compulsively readable, this is a story packed with ideas, characters, and story arcs — we learn about Oscar’s workaholic mother, his wild-child sister, his grandparents and, almost tangentially, our “GhettoNerd” protagonist. The narration is balanced (sometimes overly so) with footnotes tell you about what happened to a particular side character or historical person, and there’s an epic feel to this tale. Yet, in a the-honeymoon’s-over type of way, I was disappointed in this novel. Diaz’s collection of short stories Drown is one of my all-time favorites, and while that was fantastic, this is merely… quite good. He still merges humor with tragedy, and comes up with amazing descriptions to combine life and language in the Dominican Republic with a more American existence. It was an enjoyable read, but nothing like the (for me) dizzying heights set by his short stories.
Oscar Wao is a New Jersey boy who is obsessed with becoming the Dominican version of J.R.R. Tolkien via an unfinished four-book science fiction epic. Oscar thinks he’s a “G” when talking about role-playing games and worries seriously about being the only Dominican male to die a virgin. Though he eventually gets a love story of his own (falling in love with Ybon, an aging prostitute in Santo Domingo), quite a bit of this novel details the various trials of his family — grandparents who suffered at the hands of El Trujillo, a cousin named La Inca who cared for Oscar’s mother, the beautiful final daughter who eventually morphs into Oscar’s skinny, workaholic mother who’s struggling with cancer.
Diaz’s writing is forceful and unapologetic, and there are many times when you’re carried along by the writing, where you have barely enough time to wonder about whether being a (@#$) vs a snort-addicted mess is stereotypical or unique characterization for a prostitute and find out that a cop-divorce is synonymous with a bullet. Still, there are times when the style almost becomes a stumbling block for the story — the first-person narrator whose identity shifts, the lack of punctuation that adds greatly to the speed of the novel but sometimes, similar to long Hemingway dialogues, leaves you wondering where and who is speaking, etc.
Further, despite the title, Oscar’s story feels almost like it could be a footnote in the story — the parts with his mother’s transformation (though more predictable) are compelling, and the grandparents and their history is one of the strongest sections. By the time we loop back around to our protagonist, he’s somehow less interesting, a bit anticlimactic. We’re told that this is a cursed family, that fu&u (curse) is at work here, and we’ve seen the dramatic effects this has had through prior generations so that Oscar’s eventual downfall feels like the weakest of the set…
Comparisons to Other Books:
Diaz is an amazing writer — the pacing, the style, and the language are unique and at times, like I said, almost compulsively readable. Still, I found Drown to be angry, raw and compelling in a way that this just wasn‘t.