The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Junot Díaz, 2007

the sixteenth book in the visitor recommendation series;
suggested by Peter Krause

So, after devoting the better part of a year to books about Theodore Roosevelt, I finally returned to the list of books recommended by visitors to my site.  At the front of the queue was a book I'd also had recommended to me by Amazon and Goodreads and pretty much every other site out there that recommends books: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  This was probably less because these algorithms spotted any particular affinity I might have for the book than something like this: "Here is someone who has recently read some contemporary fiction! Here is a piece of contemporary fiction that recently won a Pulitzer! Verdict: GOOD RECOMMENDATION!"  But I can see why a human might come to the same conclusion.  Pattern 24 says that I am a big fan of geographically and chronologically grounded narrative, and in telling the story of multiple generations of a Dominican-American family, Díaz draws attention to how the lives of its members are shaped by phenomena as disparate as the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo and nerd culture of the 1970s and '80s.  To me it was an interesting mix of the superlatively familiar and the rather alien.  I'm from California and have had little to no interaction with the Dominican-American community, so that material was exotic to me… but then Díaz would casually mention that the title character owned an Intellivision, or was reading a Danny Dunn book, or was playing Champions with his friends, and my eyebrows would shoot up: no one had ever quite so precisely name-checked the constituents of my youth.  Some of this is just shotgun effect — for every reference that seemed eerily unique to me, there were ten others that went over my head — and some of it is that the stuff I imprinted on was rarely all that obscure.  Yes, Watchmen is my favorite book, and yes, Díaz incorporates an extended summary of the last chapter of Watchmen into the ending of his book, but it's not like the most celebrated work in the history of the comics medium is a particularly deep cut.  Still — when the narrator's advice to the title character in improving his luck with girls is "don't bring up the Beyonder any more than necessary," it's more than a little uncanny.

That said — I can't actually say that I liked the book!  It rubbed me the wrong way somehow.  Some of it might be the voice, which sometimes grates by trying a little too hard ("She had caught a serious case of the hips-ass-chest, a condition which during the mid-forties spelled trouble with a capital T to the R to the U to the J to the illo") and some of it might be the long stretches dealing with characters to whom I felt little or no connection.  But I suspect that a lot of it is idiosyncratic.  I remember that back in 1998, Andrew Plotkin reviewed the second-place finisher in the interactive fiction competition, Muse, by noting, "What a pity I'm in no mood to appreciate this."  Sometimes even a well-done work hits a nerve in such a way that it poisons the whole experience.  For me, the line that killed Oscar Wao for me was a reference to Ray Bradbury's "All Summer in a Day":

Sucks to be left out of adolescence, sort of like getting locked in the closet on Venus when the sun appears for the first time in a hundred years.

Two years ago I might have been able to read that, grimace ruefully, and move on.  But due to recent events in my personal life, right now that is just too painful and triggery for me to be able to handle, and it turned the rest of the book into a long limp home on a broken leg.  And then the very ending was like finally reaching home and discovering that it had burned down.

reply via
comment on
return to the
Calendar page