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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Diaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a novel by Junot Diaz. It has won important awards and glowing reviews. The book received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award. Here is an excerpt from a review by Michiko Kakutani, writing for the New York Times:

"Junot Díaz’s “Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is a wondrous, not-so-brief first novel that is so original it can only be described as Mario Vargas Llosa meets “Star Trek” meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West. It is funny, street-smart and keenly observed, and it unfolds from a comic portrait of a second-generation Dominican geek into a harrowing meditation on public and private history and the burdens of familial history. An extraordinarily vibrant book that’s fueled by adrenaline-powered prose, it’s confidently steered through several decades of history by a madcap, magpie voice that’s equally at home talking about Tolkien and Trujillo, anime movies and ancient Dominican curses, sexual shenanigans at Rutgers University and secret police raids in Santo Domingo."

As is often the case with books that have a rich pedigree of prizes and praise, I was concerned that I would not like it. And my concerns were realized; I didn't like it. Unlike Michiko Kakutani, I didn't find this story "funny", "madcap" or the prose "adrenaline-powered". The book does have a set of interesting elements but, for me, they didn't add up to something great.

We follow the story of Oscar, an overweight, uncool, and unpopular young man. This is not new ground in fiction. More interesting are the book's additional story lines concerning Oscar's sister and mother, Dominican culture and history. Together, all of these features are readable, but not particularly absorbing.

Junto Diaz's book is written in the style of present day hip fiction, complete with use of lengthy footnotes that could well have been within the text. Frankly, footnotes are annoying in all styles of writing, and certainly as a device in fiction. Diaz's language and word choice - Spanish slang is used throughout - is fresh, but sent me all too frequently to the internet to obtain a translation.

In the end, The Brief Wondrous Live of Oscar Wao didn't satisfy the elements of a must-read, recommendable book.