Sunday, August 14, 2011

Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

I was given this book by a Couchsurfer who stayed at my place last year. I set it aside, but found myself needing to take a break from Royal Assassin, which I'm on the verge of abandoning because it's characters are far too stupid, and of course what do I do, I picked up the book, which is about a nerd who can't get dates.

A few things you should know about this book. First, the nerd's from the Dominican Republic, where the men are suppose to be real men "with atomic level-G". Secondly, the novel's written by an MIT professor, MIT-textbook style. That means long multipage footnotes telling you about some interesting story behind the story behind the story. Third, the book was written in 2007, after pop culture, especially nerdy pop culture, has become hip. Hip enough that even with passages like these:
Sometime before dawn he dreamt about all the girlfriends he'd never had, row upon row upon row, like the extra bodies that the Miraclepeople had in Alan Moore's Miracleman...

or this:
Beli, who'd been waiting for something exactly like her body her whole life, was sent over the moon by what she now knew. By the undeniable concreteness of her desirability which was, in its own way, Power. Like the accidental discovery of the One Ring. Like stumbling into the wizard Shazam's cave or finding the crashed ship of the Green Lantern! Hypatia Belicia Cabral finallly had power and a true sense of self... Telling Beeli not to flaunt those curves would have been like asking the persecuted fat kid not to use his recently discovered mutant abilities. With great power comes great responsibility... bullshit. Our girl ran into the future that her new body represented and never ever looked back.
The book still won the Pulitzer prize. The book is steeped in nerd culture, nerd metaphors, and is written in a heavily Dominican Republic voice. The narrator (who's not Oscar De Leong "Wao") clearly is sympathetic to Oscar, but didn't belong in the same universe. The narrator's not revealed until near the middle of the book, and sadly, the identity of the narrator is not of any interest whatsoever to the plot.

So that's the hook that Junot Diaz uses to draw you in. What about the meat? It's mostly about Dominican Republic history. Footnote after footnote discusses the reign of the dictator of Rafael Trujillo, its effects on the lives of its people, and what growing up and raising children of that era is like. Fascinating stuff if you're interested, and read with impatience if you're not.

In the end, I have mixed feelings about this book. The author does a good job of blending nerd culture metaphors into an appropriate narrative. The plot itself is non-existent. If your expectation is that you're reading a Pulitzer prize winning novel that's mainly about the author's voice and the Dominican Republic's history, then I think that's ok. But if you want a good read, the book feels a little empty where the shell is merely there to draw you into reading something that you weren't terribly interested in at the beginning and still aren't interested in at the end.

Let me offer up this recommendation: if you're into the history of the Dominican Republic, read this book cover to cover. If you love the two sample pieces of prose I provided above, go ahead and read the first 10 pages to see if you get sick of it or if it sucks you in. Then feel free to give up after the next 100 pages. If you read till the end to get fulfillment, some sort of redemption, or satisfaction, be prepared to be very disappointed. If you want a Pulitzer prize novel worthy of attention, read Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose instead.
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