Monday, September 01, 2008

38. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao picture
I had read a couple of Junot Diaz's short stories in the New Yorker, but his Pulitzer Prize winning novel had completely slipped under my radar until my sister told me about it and then brought me a copy. Thanks, sis, because this is a fantastic book, easily the best book of 2008. Perhaps more significant for me than just its qualities as a novel, it also signals a new beachhead in the cultural invasion of geeks into the mainstream. Diaz is one of us, it seems!

The titular character is the main character and it is around his life that the book is built. He's a rarity, a Dominican nerd, an extreme one at that. But the novel tells the story of his entire family and the history of the Dominican Republic in the 20th century that eventually pushed them to America. We learn about his mother, his great-aunt (who raised his mother when her parents were killed by the Trujillo regime), his sister, his grandparents and a few other interesting characters. It's a rich, entertaining tale, made even more complex by the gradual revelation of the identity of the narrator. Actually, in its structure, it is not dissimilar to David Chariandy's Soucouyant (which I read recently), where a situation in the present-day Americas is slowly peeled back to reveal the complex colonial layers underneath.

But the voice here is so much different. So alive! Diaz uses all kinds of ghetto slang, several forms of spanish and spanglish and a hardcore nerd lexicon the likes of which you can barely find online these days, let alone in a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist. He drops obscure game references, uses hit dice (not just hit points!) to refer to the injuries someone takes after a beating from the Dominican secret police, refers to John Christopher, even! Most impressive. While there was a lot of the spanish I didn't know, for most people there is probably just as much, if not more, nerdly vocabulary that would be completely foreign to them.

I'm not going to go into it much more than this beyond saying that I read the entire book in a day on a long flight from the west coast, laughed out loud several times, even once when I couldn't stop and I think the people around me in the waiting gate thought I was a little crazy. It's an amazing book and if it is to be written about anymore, it should be done properly, which I'm not prepared to do. There is a podcast here where Diaz says some really interesting things about the book, which I recommend you should listen to when you have finished it, if you are interested. Otherwise, just get this book and read it


meezly said...

I will!

you got me curious, so puttin' it on my list...

Buzby said...

It sounds like this is a great book. Compelling review, I am also listing it.

Also, I like the book completion meter. Where did you get that or what's the code for that?

Jason L said...

Such positivity! I have liberated it from my wife's bookshelf and am putting it in the on-deck circle (albeit with a few others)

OlmanFeelyus said...

Put it at the top!