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19th August
2010
written by Steph

When I picked up a copy of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao I only knew three things about it: 1) it had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction; 2) it had a bunch of Spanish in it; and 3) it involved a lot of “geeky” sci-fi/fantasy references. The first point was certainly not a deterrent, and I figured that being fluent in French and having taken one year of highschool Spanish would probably be enough to make it through any smatterings of Spanish throughout the book. I’d only heard effusive praise for the book, even by those readers who didn’t have an extensive background in genre fiction, so I was pretty excited to give it a go. I think the first thing I have to say is something that you’ve probably heard in other reviews but which I must make very clear: THERE IS A LOT OF SPANISH IN THIS BOOK. Sometimes it’s just a word thrown into a sentence here or there that doesn’t completely undermine your comprehension of the book… but other times it’s an entire phrase, and it’s not likely to be one of those phrases you learned in an introductory language course. This isn’t holiday Spanish, this is contemporary, living Spanish that uses a lot of slang and idioms, that will probably be lost on you unless you’re a native speaker or extremely fluent. If you know how to ask where the beach is or proclaim your love of chicken and rice, that’s not going to cut it. Consider yourself warned! (As an aside, you need to worry less if you know nada about sci-fi and fantasy. I’m sure some references didn’t hit home, but I didn’t feel these detracted from my comprehension of the novel.) That’s not to say the book is incomprehensible, even with the Spanish. It’s not, but I did find myself frustrated, in part because there are tons of footnotes throughout the book (something I’ll get to in a bit), and I kept wondering why we couldn’t have these phrases translated for us. Because I am one of those people who likes to understand every little bit of the text I am reading, so it is frustrating when I just have to shrug and say “No entiendo” and move on, hoping I didn’t just miss something revelatory. Given that, it probably seems contradictory for me to say that I liked the writing, but by and large I did. It was unlike any Pulitzer winner I’ve read before. It was full of “dudes” and plenty of cussing, and it was just very brash and ballsy and hip, I suppose you could say. Ok, perhaps “like” isn’t the exactly right word for my feelings about the writing, because sometimes I did feel put-off by its “in your face” street style, but I respected that it had a very unique voice, one that was certainly not staid or ponderous. It was just such a departure from so much conventional prize-winning fiction, that it was exciting. To me, the closest I’ve ever come to a similar author is perhaps Victor LaValle, but I suspect the reference is probably lost on most since he’s one of those tragically overlooked authors. Sigh. Now that we’ve talked about the writing, you’d probably like to know a little bit about what the book is about. Well, you’d probably assume from the title that the book is about a character named Oscar Wao… and you would be wrong! Because first, the Oscar in question is actually named Oscar de Leon (Wao is a reference to Oscar Wilde, and is a nickname that arises partway through the novel), and also, the novel is only partially about him. I’d say the book is maybe 1/3 about Oscar, 1/3 about the de Leon family (with a heavy emphasis on its matriarch, Belicia Cabral), and 1/3 about the Dominican Republic. And I think that speaking in terms of which storylines work best, you’d probably go in reverse order from that in which I listed them. Because mostly what I took away from this novel was the peek it gave me into Dominican Republic culture and history, its social dynamics and the strife that is imbued within it. Here’s where those footnotes come into play, because Diaz references many prominent figures and events in Dominican Republic history, but handily provides elaborations on these things via footnotes so that the context and import is not lost on less savvy readers (of which I fully admit I would be considered a part). Some people love them some footnotes; I am generally not one of those people (because I find it disrupts the flow of my reading), BUT in this case I felt they really worked and were sometimes even more interesting to read than the story itself. So if you find yourself thrown into ecstasies over footnotes, generally speaking, then you will be plenty pleased with this novel.  Reading Oscar, I was struck with a strong urge to re-read In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, a novelization of the life of the Mirabel sisters, a group who rebelled against the Dominican dictator Trujillo and who are frequently referenced in this book. If you need more convincing, you should read Nymeth’s review over at Things Mean A Lot, where she speaks very eloquently on the book and why it’s a must read. I did think that the contrast of the de Leon family against traditional Dominican culture was quite clever. There is so much machismo, misogyny, and heady sexuality that runs rampant through the novel, it’s interesting to see a family in which the women are the warriors, and Oscar is an awkward virgin, obsessed with American superheroes and comic books. The first part of the book that focuses on Oscar proper strongly reminded me of A Confederacy of Dunces and its protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, by John Kennedy Toole, another brilliant novel that I should re-read, so I was definitely feeling muy simpatico about Oscar at that point. I did enjoy the portions of the book where the focus shifted to Belicia and Oscar’s sister Lola, but I felt that a better job could have been done uniting the storylines into a more coherent vision. Things sometimes felt muddled and confused, and it didn’t always feel as though there was a clear direction, or that Diaz knew exactly which story it was he wanted to tell. I’ve read that apparently Oscar Wao started off as a short story, and I believe that because at times it does feel like there is some padding going on, perhaps adding to that sense of aimlessness. To add to the general confusion, there is a hint of magical realism to the text (perhaps only appropriate given Oscar’s obsession with the other-worldly), and the novel kicks of with a discussion of curses (or fuku as they’re known in the Dominican Republic), which we’re meant to be believe have been plaguing the de Leon family for quite some time. By the end of the novel, a lot of crazy stuff begins to happen, and I think at this point Diaz did pull strongly from his love of comic books and superhero fiction, since things get wild. It’s not a spoiler to say that Oscar dies – I mean, that’s revealed in the title – but I was left confused by his death. I felt like I didn’t entirely understand the necessity or motivation behind it, that I didn’t fully grasp what Diaz was saying by having him die. Was this a failing of myself as a reader, or did Diaz as an author lose me? I’m not sure. All I do know is that I felt increasingly unsatisfied as the novel progressed, because I felt the strands were breaking free of one another taking my understanding with them, rather than unifying into something larger than life. On re-reading this review, I realize it probably sounds like I didn’t like this book, but I actually did. It was vibrant and engaging storytelling, even if I don’t think all aspects of it worked as well for me as they could have. It was certainly a novel unlike any other I’ve read before, and one I certainly won’t confuse with any others. I appreciated how different it was from the types of novels I normally read, and think it’s rather fantastic that the Pulitzer committee recognized a book so unlike any other they’ve ever lauded before. I haven’t read any of the other finalists for the 2008 prize, so I can’t speak to how appropriate I believe the award was, but in terms of offering readers something new and likely outside of their comfort zone, I can’t fault them. I think I'd likely re-read this one again to see if I can pick up some of those strands I felt I dropped and take a little bit more away from it on a second reading. Rating: 4 out of 5

11 Comments

  1. 08/19/2010

    Well this one’s a big NO for me since I don’t speak a word of Spanish. I like when there are at least translations to passages in the back of the book! It’s like the old classics with whole paragraphs in French. At least I can read those because I have a fairly decent working knowledge of French, even if I’m rusty with it. When I read Nabokov, I can read his French and have a slight comprehension of his German, but just have to skip the Russian parts, but there’s usually at least a note in the back as to what those sections mean!

    In a sidenote, I really need to reread A Confederacy of Dunces too. I read it in a sophomore year satire literature course, and I barely remember it. We also read Babbitt that year, and the two books are the same in my head. Both are on my shelves for reread.

  2. As you may know from my review at the time, Steph, I don’t speak Spanish but I didn’t find it detrimental to my enjoyment of the text; yes it was frustrating at times and I did not have a babelfish to hand but I don’t think I was ever really missing anything in the same vein as some of the fantasy references going over your head did not affect your reading. I thought that its linguistic style -and its duality- added to the originality and “authenticity” of the novel. Oh, and yes, I had a strong urge to read In the Time of Butterflies afterwards but it remains unread…

  3. 08/19/2010

    I am super looking forward to reading this. I had heard Junot Diaz being interviewed in a podcast (forgot which) and found him to be so dang cool (and brilliant). We shall see..

  4. 08/20/2010

    Je ne savais pas que tu parlais français! Après cinq années à Bruxelles je doit savoir plus que se sais… mais j’aime la langue. Je devrais lire plus en Francais – c’est ce que j’ai fait pour améliorer mon anglais.

    I love me some notes, but in the back, not footnotes. Also feel they distrupt my flow, even when they’re part of the story like in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

  5. I am hoping to read this book soon, but I think I’ll struggle with the Spanish. I have a basic knowledge of French and German, but know about three words of Spanish. I hope that I’m able to enjoy it despite that. Hopefully I’ll get to it in the Autumn sometime 🙂

  6. 08/20/2010

    @ Amanda: Apparently Diaz neglected to include translations because he wants English speakers to go out and connect with Spanish speakers to remind us that reading is a collective experience. Unless you speak Spanish already, I guess… 😉 And I totally feel you on passages in French! When I was reading Jane Eyre last year, there were conversations in French that were never translated which might have been frustrating to non-French speakers, but I could at least get through those! 😉
     
    @ Claire: I thought the Spanish did add something to the text for sure, I think I was still just surprised at the complexity and amount of it. If it had just been a word or two thrown into a sentence, I doubt I would have even remarked on it at all! And you really must read In The Time of the Butterflies! So good!
     
    @ claire: I’m really interested to see how you’ll respond to this novel! I think you’ll like it a good deal, though it’s not a book that immediately makes me think of you… but you are an eclectic enough reader and the heart of it is so strong that I think you will love it!
     
    @ Alex: Oui, je parle français, mais je n’ai pas beaucoup d’occasions à pratiquer ici à Nashville! J’ai une autre amie qui parle français donc on se parle parfois… mais toujours après plusieurs verres du vin! 😉 I can’t remember the last time I read a book in French… probably when I was in highschool! I keep wanting to do so, but it would probably take me AGES! 😉
     
    @ Jackie: I think you’ll manage to muddle through the Spanish and enjoy the book nonetheless… I guess we’ll see! 😉

  7. 08/20/2010

    I have been following the success of this book, but am still kind of on the fence about it. Your review does put me a little more in the frame of mind to read it though, for a few reasons. I like the idea of lots of interesting footnotes, and I also like that the story has such a modern feel to it, what with all the “dudes” rolling around in the text! I do admit to being a little shy of all the Spanish stuck in there though because I am like you, I don’t want to miss anything in the story, and I have only the basic grasp of Spanish. I am going to have to try to get this one out of the library instead of making an immediate investment in it and give it a try. I loved this review, Steph! Very comprehensive and thoughtful!

  8. 08/22/2010

    I cannot decide on this one partly because of the same reason you have cited: the text is infested with lots of Spanish expressions. The other thing is the writing style. I took my time skimming through this book at the bookstore but something in my gut just told me no. Then I went hiking with a friend who is a reader, he has the book in his car. Now I’m very divided…

  9. 08/22/2010

    @ Matt: It definitely has a very distinctive style that I think is pretty polarizing – either you’ll love it or hate it… Or maybe you’ll be like me and respect it but not always love it! 😉

  10. 08/23/2010

    I love that you compared this to A Confederacy of Dunces! That’s a book I need to re-read as well. It’s one of my favourites, actually, and I can definitely see your point. And thank you for including my link – I’m very thankful to Diaz to having led me to Alvarez.

    I can imagine how lost I’d have felt in this book if I hadn’t understood the Spanish. Fortunately as a native speaker of Portuguese I could make sense of 90% of it.

  11. 08/24/2010

    @ Nymeth: I think I was able to understand about 70 – 75% of the Spanish, which is not too bad considering my fairly abysmal abilities with the language! 😀

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