Oscar Wow (Come On, I Had To)

17 Oct

I waited way too long to read this book. I know it doesn’t really matter, since books are timeless, etc., but had I known how easily I would have flown through this, I probably would have picked it up back in 2007, in hardcover. So I guess I can just chalk it up to a 30% discount. Go me.

Some things you should know, without really giving anything away.

1. This book is far less literary than I anticipated. And I don’t mean that in the inevitably negative way it’s going to come out. But I think, having not read much about it when it was popular and being persistently unenthused by the back-cover plot summary (seriously, it’s still not compelling and now I’ve read the book) I based a lot of my assumptions about Wao on the fact that it won the Pulitzer, among approximately seven jillion other awards. Because of this, I assumed it would be a dense read, something I’d have to put my back into to get through. In that sense, I was woefully wrong. Wao is incredibly readable and engrossing, without at any point sacrificing sophistication of prose for ease of consumption, or vice versa. That’s a hard thing to pull off.

2. Book’s got mad Spanish. Most of it is written in an English-heavy version of Spanglish, with Spanish slang terms thrown in willy-nilly, and minimal effort is made to qualify or translate them. As a former Spanish major and current resident of Brooklyn, I found myself keeping pace with most of the terminology, though I definitely missed some stuff. I decided not to look anything up and instead absorb the words through context/phonetics. It would have felt wrong to stop reading every five minutes to bust out my now-ancient Spanish-English dictionary. (Also, I didn’t want to look for it. ..Mostly that).

3. You know these people. Whether or not you love Jonathan Franzen, one thing most people seem able to agree on is his ability to create complex and believable characters. Having finished Freedom just a few weeks before embarking on this adventure (and thank God, because I could not have finished that 700-page monster in a week), I have to say I agree, with the caveat that Franzen’s characters, like so many in literature, are complex and seem believable, but don’t always seem real. They don’t seem like people I know. By contrast, Wao is chock full of people I’ve seen on the street, in school, at the bar—Díaz doesn’t need to spend a ton of time explaining motives or describing the thought patterns of his characters; the few bold strokes he paints of each are enough to have you anticipating their emotions and motivations, because you feel you know them. That, as an author, is an incredible feat.

Some things you should also know:

1. There are a lot of footnotes. Typically I’m footnote-agnostic—David Foster Wallace has an almost bizarre obsession with them, and for the most part I appreciate it as a literary quirk of his—but the footnotes in Wao are at best innocuous and at worst distracting. It doesn’t help that the author generally reserves them for sidebars on Dominican history, which is arguably the least compelling part of the story.

2. Although you come to realize that Oscar is less the main character than the orb around which all of the other characters revolve, in the end I was surprised to realize how infrequently he was the main subject of the plot. Which would have made more sense had the argument been that the other people—his mother, his sister, his grandmother—had through their own life stories shaped Oscar’s, but the resounding theme of the book is how different Oscar is, from his family, peers and surroundings. So at times the wondrous life of Oscar Wao seems very separate from the wondrous lives of the book’s other characters.

THE VERDICT:
Wao is about a lot of specific things—geography, culture, socioeconomic status, interests—so there are times when it seems indecisive as a novel, but it is utterly accessible and compelling. Perhaps most importantly, it’s like nothing else you’ve read, and that alone is a reason to pick it up.

THE FACTS:
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TITLE:The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
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AUTHOR: Junot Díaz
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PAGES: 340 (in paperback)
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ALSO WROTE: Drown
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SORTA LIKE: The Joy Luck Club meets Random Family
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FIRST LINE: ”They say it came first from Africa, carried in the streams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles.”

One Response to “Oscar Wow (Come On, I Had To)”

  1. typingelbow October 17, 2010 at 9:04 pm #

    I abashedly admit that I was gonna put this one off b/c it seemed like it would be dense. I'm happy to hear otherwise. Adding it to my list of books to devour…

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