Well, it’s been over a week since I finished this book and I’m still trying to sort out my thoughts. This was my pick for my work book club and we certainly had more than enough material to talk about in our meeting–I didn’t even have to pull out those discussion questions! I think the general consensus was that we all more or less liked the book, but all of us had troubles expressing just how we felt about it. Yup–looks like there might be a rambly book post down below.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is about so many things and I’m not sure it is even accurate for me to say it is mostly about the brief or wondrous life of Oscar Wao. In the prologue of the book, the narrator explains fukú–a curse that traveled first from Africa to the New World and inflicted generations of families. And as he explains: “I have a fukú story too. I wish I could say it was the best of the lot–fukú number one–but I can’t. Mine ain’t the scariest, the clearest, the most painful, or the most beautiful. It just happens to be the one that’s got its fingers around my throat” (6).
So while this book is certainly about Oscar Wao and in many respects Oscar Wao is the unlikely hero of this tale, the story begins long before Oscar with his grandfather, Abelard, and his mother, Beli, in the Dominican Republic. Diaz (or more accurately the narrator Yunior) shares the history of the Cabral family curse beginning with Beli’s beautiful sister who caught the eye of the Dominican dictator El Jefe (Rafael Trujillo), Abelard’s famous last words, Beli’s exodus to New Jersey after a tumultuous adolescence, and Oscar’s eventual–well, I don’t want to say it, but the title does imply that his life is brief…
Since there’s no way to really explain this book, and because you all know how much I hate writing up summaries, I’ll skip to the good part–the rambling part. Except there are so many things to talk about with this book that I have no idea where to begin. I could talk about the narration–how for at least half the book the reader is unaware who the narrator is, and even still I’m not exactly sure why Yunior is telling the story. Yunior roomed with Oscar for a short period during their time at college and he didn’t really care for Oscar–or maybe he did but he just didn’t know how to show it. Yunior was in love with Oscar’s sister, Lola, though. I loved the narration style of this book. I felt like I was chilling with Yunior and he was telling me all about this geeky fantasy loving fat kid, Oscar, and his cursed family’s even crazier story–the tone very conversational and intimate. In many ways Yunior is “in your face” but it somehow worked for this story.
And then there’s the other stuff you’ve heard about this book–the language, the footnotes, the use of Dominican slang, the jumpy narration (Lola makes a few brief appearances as narrator), the fantasy references, the violence. It almost seems like Diaz made a big list of all the things he could throw into this book, but all of these things worked together to make an effective story (note: breaking these up into smaller paragraphs hopefully to make it easier to digest rather than one giant paragraph). The language is strong. For the most part it didn’t get to me me, but there was about 50 pages in the middle of the book where I really struggled. There was an obvious tone change during this section (when Oscar and Yunior are roommates), but once that passed I was fine again.
The Spanish didn’t bother me. The way that I look at it: the Spanish is mostly Dominican slang which means that a large majority of Diaz’s readers can’t understand exactly what is being said. I don’t think he meant for us to understand everything that was being said. To me, it was like adding texture to the writing. The footnotes were at times distracting because I would forget what was happening in the narrative, but they were fascinating. I know very little about the Dominican Republic and I was glad to learn more about the country and culture.
The violence isn’t over the top, the narration is a little confusing but manageable, and 90% of the fantasy references went straight over my head (although I was thrilled to understand the Watchmen references!). But like the Spanish, the fantasy wasn’t a distractor–it just added to the complexity of the text and some people will get it and others won’t.
And that’s the thing about this book. I think everyone will take away something different and every reading will enlighten the reader just a little bit more. The book is incredibly rich and I could certainly use a second reading of the book to pick up all of the little nuances and subtleties that I missed the first time. I think some people would get frustrated by a book like this, but I love a book that will still have me thinking about it long after the cover has been closed (I’m still thinking about that Murakami book I read in January!). I couldn’t recommend this book to everyone–especially because the language is quite strong–but it is one that I will continue to remember and think back on. Oscar is an usual character–in many ways he is a little bit irksome–but he is tenacious and I won’t easily forget him or his family’s story. I can’t say I loved it, but I liked it a lot and the more I think about it the more it grows on me.
For a balance of opinions:
~ Heather J. ~ Nymeth ~ Sheri ~ Care ~RegularRumination ~
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