Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz (2007)

This is the first book I have read by Junot Diaz.  Recently, it held the #1 spot on the list referenced in the post on The Corrections.  I'm going to nip this one in the bud: that list is a bunch of BS.  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a decent read, and I recommend it, but it is not the greatest novel of the still-young 21st century.  To hold that title, the novel must be perfect, or as close to perfect as practicable.  Assessing perfection isn't an easy task either.

What are the perfect novels I have read?  The Sorrows of Young Werther, The Great Gatsby and Lolita come to mind, but even such esteemed classics as these have their detractors--they're "overrated" or "the work of a sick man."  Truthfully, if Diaz had not been at the top of that list, I would give it a better review.  For me at least, something kicks in when a new book becomes critically-acclaimed: I want to find a defect to prove that it's not as good as everyone says it is.  I don't feel this way about films, TV shows, theater, music or any other type of art.  Just books.  I've been waiting to "hate-read" The Goldfinch for almost two years now.  Why?  Because books take concentration and sometimes people skim them.  I feel that I always put enough "effort" into a book to write an accurate review--not always the case for those other mediums (though I have toyed with writing reviews of Interstellar and Ant-Man over the past couple of weeks and months, it can be hard to say something original about them).

The first problem with this book (for me) is the Spanish.  There is a lot of Spanish in this book and it is almost never translated.  True, if one does not know the language, one can still easily read the book and get something out of it, but I have to believe that with the quantity of Spanish (or "Spanglish," if you call it that), knowledge will enhance your experience.  One comment on race: Spanish is already on its way to becoming a second national language, so perhaps the popularity of this book is merely a reflection of that cultural shift in progress.  Obviously, this book will be enjoyed most by children of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, and to a lesser extent, Hispanic-Americans generally.  "Nerds" are another target demographic, and though I think Comic Con attendees will also enjoy it, the ethnic connection is ultimately more powerful.  People that know what Hispanic families are like (and don't need to keep a Spanish-to-English dictionary at hand) will enjoy it the most.

The plot?  Fuku.  Fuku is a curse that has bedeviled Oscar's family for the past hundred years or more.  Oscar himself is not named Wao, but Cabral de Leon (he is called Oscar Wao by his friends in reference to a Doctor Who character, I think).  This account of "Oscar's life" is much more an account of his family's history.  Anybody going into this blind deserves to know that.  (As usual, I will avoid spoilers--though it is quite easy to go almost all the way to the end of this book without spoiling anything.)

Because of this aspect, the book bears an unsettling resemblance to One Hundred Years of Solitude (the rare review without an excerpt!).  Checking that review, I would say the historical parts are easier to follow in this one, but equally maddening.  Obviously, this story is about Oscar.  But really it amounts to about three or four decent-sized chapters or short stories about Oscar and the different periods in his life (teen-hood, college-dom, young adult-hood).  The book has 335 pages and it seems like less than half of them are about Oscar.

Oscar, the character, and the tales of his existence, are all very well done.  Though in the same way the book's structure and modus operandi seem plucked from Marquez, Oscar seems like Ignatius J. Reilly of A Confederacy of Dunces updated for the 1980's.  This is a book that wears its influences on its sleeve--in other ways more obvious than this.  I particularly enjoy the Watchmen references.

Along the way, the story is narrated by Oscar's former college roommate, and ex-boyfriend of his sister Lola.  Lola herself is one of the major characters, and a significant portion of the text is devoted to her, as well as their mother Beli.

Basically, the story starts with Oscar in the early 1980's.  On display right away is the Spanglish and the brash narrative tone--which is a bit unnerving.  A second comment on race, if I may--urban patois is used here not in the typical stereotypical way, but it seems a bit disingenuous.  I'm glad that it is not reserved for the token ghetto character that ambitious society-spanning comedie-humaines must include, but it seems like it's trying too hard to be cool or appeal to a younger generation of readers.  I prefer to excerpt passages that highlight certain great things about a book, but in this instance it's just going to sound really racist if I don't back it up.  On a related note the n-word is used way too breezily.  Okay, maybe this is realistic, but it feels...off....:

"...What's wrong with you? his mother asked.  She was getting ready to go to her second job, the eczema on her hands looking like a messy meal that had set.  When Oscar whimpered, Girls, Moms de Leon nearly exploded.  Tu ta llorando por una muchacha?  She hauled Oscar to his feet by his ear.
Mami, stop it, his sister cried, stop it!
She threw him to the floor.  Dale un galletazo, she panted, then see if the little puta respects you.
If he'd been a different nigger he might have considered the galletazo.  It wasn't just that he didn't have no kind of father to show him the masculine ropes, he simply lacked all aggressive and martial tendencies.  (Unlike his sister, who fought boys and packs or morena girls who hated her thin nose and straightish hair.) Oscar had like a zero combat rating; even Olga and her toothpick arms could have stomped him silly.  Aggression and intimidation was out of the question.  So he thought it over.  Didn't take him long to decide.  After all, Maritza was beautiful and Olga was not; Olga sometimes smelled like pee and Maritza did not.  Maritza was allowed over their house and Olga was not.  (A puertorican over here? his mother scoffed.  Jamas!) His logic as close to the yes/no math of insects as a nigger could get.  He broke up with Olga the following day on the playground, Maritza at his side, and how Olga had cried!  Shaking like a rag in her hand-me-downs and in the shoes that were four sizes too big!  Snots pouring out her nose and everything!" (14-15)

In a way, I can see how people find this tone to be charming, and sometimes it is very funny and more entertaining than not.  It keeps the action moving along.  It is "energetic."  But I need to look up what galletazo means to get it--sort of.  Like, I get it eventually, but this story is really made for a person that has a more innate understanding of the DR experience.  And I get that Dominicans are dark-skinned and the n-word is not confined to the African-American experience, but it feels unnecessary to me--this is probably a cultural thing though.

There are footnotes, and these usually provide background on the political history of the Dominican Republic.  In my humble opinion, these are some of the best parts of the book.  I'm not sure if they are made-up or actually true--most likely a "magical realism" blend--but they're great stories, told well (even with the sometimes unsettling narrative tone).  I had never heard of Trujillo previous to reading this, so in that sense, the book expanded my worldview.  Moreover, perhaps because I feel this way about the historical elements, my favorite chapter was the 5th, which concerns Oscar's heretofor-mysterious grandfather, Abelard.  For me, this was one of the finest moments of the novel.  On a personal note, I may have felt this way because I experienced a reversal in my employment situation around the time I read it, and certain details felt prescient:

"What followed is still, to this day, hotly disputed.  There are those who swear on their mothers that when Abelard finally opened the trunk he poked his head inside and said, Nope, no bodies here.  This is what Abelard himself claimed to have said.  A poor joke, certainly, but not 'slander' or 'gross calumny.'  In Abelard's version of the events, his friends laughed, the bureau was secured, and off he drove to his Santiago apartment, where Lydia was waiting for him (forty-two and still lovely and still worried shitless about his daughter).  The court officers and their hidden 'witnesses,' however, argued that something quite different happened, that when Dr. Abelard Luis Cabral opened the trunk of the Packard, he said, Nope, no bodies here, Trujillo must have cleaned them out for me.
End quote." (234-235)

There are also chapters featuring Lola and Beli, and one that is apparently written by Lola.  As one wades through the text, it can be jarring, and even though it comes together eventually, I'm not sure of the purpose (at least of the chapter that Lola narrates).

The ending of the book is both triumphant and maddening.  The reader will likely be stirred and uplifted by Oscar's redemption, but personally I don't understand why he needs to take his trip.  There is the nice motif of the sugar cane fields, but Oscar's actions also appear senseless to me.

Far be it from me to criticize a book that is not a series of sexual escapades, but rather a series of unrequited love-scapades, and featuring a main character named Oscar in 2007, but I do not buy the ending.  Oscar has transformed into a different person by the end of the novel, and one that appears readily capable of overcoming his "pathetic" nature.  So I do not buy that he needs to take the trip.  And I do not buy that he would act so recklessly in the face of such visceral threats.  Regardless, the setting is the occasion for my favorite line in the book, even though I've never been an RPG gamer or D&D wizard:

"What the fuck, Oscar, I said on the phone.  I leave you alone for a couple days and you almost get yourself slabbed?
His voice sounded muffled.  I kissed a girl, Yunior.  I finally kissed a girl.
But, O, you almost got yourself killed.
It wasn't completely egregious, he said.  I still had a few hit points left." (305)

In sum, this is an original book whose influences are worn on its sleeve.  It does feel "energetically" written and I can see why people like it.  It's not the best book of the 21st century though.  It's not aiming for that.  I liked it, even a lot at times, but I think it will be best appreciated by those with a better working knowledge of Spanish.  And big fat dorks that live in the ghetto.

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