Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

There's many things I like about this book, though I wonder how long it will stick with me. I also wonder whether anybody will be talking about Junot Diaz 10 years from now.

I like the energy, exuberance even, of the language, harnessed to a truly original voice. The admixture of Spanish faithfully reflects the polyglot's tendency to use the best word to describe something, even if it means mixing languages.

I like the portrayal of Dominican life, both in Santo Domingo and New Jersey. The collage of Dominican history, the vivid description of the Trujillo terror, the insider look at another culture are all enriching.

I like the character of Oscar, his nerdiness, his life of comic books and video games. Diaz conveys all this with such authority that you feel like something of a nerd yourself reading it.

There are some things I don't like. I don't think we get inside Oscar enough. The narrator(s) remain detached really, and we have only vague notions of what's going on inside Oscar.

I don't like the author's glorification of the sexual prowess of Dominican men. For, make no mistake about it, while he seems to be making fun of it and couches many of his observations as ironic, there is more braggadocio here than satire. After all, the chief frustration of Oscar's brief life -- hardly wondrous -- is not getting laid, and this frustration arises in great part because of the unapologetic insistence of Yunior and everyone else in Oscar's life that this is the ultimate good in life. (Spoiler alert) So when we learn through a posthumous note that Oscar in fact does achieve this elusive goal -- in an impossibly contrived way -- we can indeed view his life now as wondrous.

There is in fact so little in the book in terms of moral choice -- all the characters are carried along by forces beyond their control, above all the tiresome fuku -- that I suspect it is in fact a superficial novel, dazzling in the virtuosity of its language but not destined for a long shelf life.

Yunior's priapism costs him the love of his life, but he seems to come to terms with it pretty easily. It's not so much that he learns any lessons or makes any choices, he just kind of runs out of energy after sowing his wild oats.

Oscar is pathetic, not tragic. His life is not wondrous, but sad. The other characters remain largely ciphers in a fable.

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