Saturday, January 8, 2011
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Before I digress any further, here's a brief setup: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the story of a young Dominican immigrant man living in New Jersey, from about the late 1970s until the 1990s, and his family's history in the Dominican Republic under the Trujillo regime. He is a massively overweight, science-fiction book-loving nerd who can't talk to girls and is convinced he'll die a virgin. He lives with his rebellious sister and his mother, and it seems the family is cursed by what the Dominicans call fuku.
This was not an easy book for me to get into, because it seemed at first it was about a lonely teenaged nerd fanboy obsessed with sex, and frankly, that is not my cup of tea. But I stuck with it for the sake of the book group -- it's supposed to be about expanding my literary horizons.
But I did stick with it, and after about 50 pages or so it got much more interesting. The story jumps back and forth between the stories of Oscar, his sister Lola, and his mother and grandparents, between New York, New Jersey, and the Dominican Republic. If you didn't know anything about the Trujillo dictatorship, you will before the book is over -- the book includes lots of background, mostly through footnotes. In teeny tiny print.
The other thing that makes this book unusual is the language -- it's full of slang, both English and Spanish, lots of references in Spanish (and no glossary), and it is chock-full of the f-word. If you are easily offended, this is not a book for you. Plus, a lot of the book is about sex -- Oscar wants sex, and other people are having sex. It's not horribly graphic or explicit, but it's there. There's quite a bit of violence as well -- Trujillo was a nasty, nasty character, and that was a terrifying era. This book is not for the faint of heart.
But I'm actually glad I finished it. This is not my normal kind of book, and I will admit that as I began I could not help wondering how in the heck this book won the Pulitzer Prize. I understood a lot better after the book discussion. I was wondering how it would be received by the group, which is mostly senior ladies. However, they're extremely open-minded, and we do have one man in the group, who also happens to be Hispanic. I was really interested in his perspective. I really love having a man in the group -- most book clubs are the domain of women, and having Danny always makes it interesting. (The fact that he's brilliant and well-read may have something to do with this).
Anyway. During the discussion, I learned why the author kept using all the Spanish words and slang with no glossary -- because he was trying to mirror the experience of an immigrant who's learning a new language and doesn't get everything. There's a lot I didn't get, but I was able to figure out most of it from context, just as an immigrant would. I also learned a lot about the symbolism and Dominican folklore that comes into the book. I think it was chosen for the Pulitzer because of its style -- it reminded me a bit of Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, and how their writing styles are groundbreaking and important. The discussion definitely inspired me to stick with the book and finish it.
I'm probably rambling by now but that's the only way I can describe this reading experience. I can't say I loved this book, or that I would want to read it again. But it was definitely thought-provoking and that's why I love going to book group. Next month we're discussing The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which could not be more different from Oscar Wao.