Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Reading Rainbow: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Well, if ever one needed proof that all you had to do to win a Pulitzer Prize (or really any literary committee that conjures an image of stodgy white people, but most specifically this one) was write a multigenerational ethnic tale in the vein of magical realism, it can be found in Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I suppose that sounds a bit dismissive, especially since the book is far from being 'bad,' but this is the same organization that saw fit to not award the prize to Gravity's Rainbow in 1974 after the three-member fiction jury unanimously recommended it. To be frank, though, reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao means doing so with the burden being placed on the book to prove itself worthy of having won such an award.

It does not prove itself worthy.

In his first full novel, Diaz sets out to tell the story of an obese Dominican nerd growing up in New Jersey. Oscar's unabashed obsession with science-fiction, fantasy, and comic books when combined with his demeanor renders him repellent to nearly all women. This is a problem as the only thing he cares about more than his escapes into nerdery is his quest for love. Oscar's hope for finding this love is cursed though, as his family has suffered under the cloud of a fuku (curse) presumably foisted upon Oscar's grandfather by the heinous Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.

As the novel travels back through time and follows the paths of first his sister Lola, then his mother Beli, and finally to his grandfather Abelard. Going back through the family tree, the evidence for a curse is certainly there.

The tale itself is compelling enough. The presentation is largely where the book comes up a bit short. Diaz's informal Spanglish prose is meant to be fresh and of the streets, but it comes across forced and grating. It also changes narrators and point-of-view, which is both off-putting and confusing, and granting Yunior, Oscar's college roommate, omniscience seems like an unsubstantiated leap. The parts that were often the most interesting were the footnotes, often but not always dealing with the history of the Dominican Republic. When the footnotes are one of the biggest things a book has going for it, there may be a problem.

But don't take my word for it...

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