Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The
by Junot Diaz
I’m glad I came to this without expectations. Wide open is probably the best way to approach this one, a book that’s pretty wide open itself. I’m also relieved that I still enjoy critically acclaimed modern literature. After being underwhelmed by Let the Great World Spin a couple of weeks ago (see my review), I wondered if my apathy stemmed from a simple desire to go against the grain. In any case, Oscar Wao-lovers make up one grain I’m happy to move with, not against.
The narrator, Yunior, has a voice that’s fresh, casual, subversive, vulgar, shocking, but above all natural. I can’t stress the naturalness enough. So many times I’ve read these affected voices, learned men and women trying to slum it with the commoners and failing spectacularly (McCann was guilty of it in Let the Great World Spin, for one example). But Diaz knocks it out of the park. He is the authentic Dominicano and transfers that know-how seamlessly to his narrator, who I’m guessing is just a proxy.
The story, at its core, is not very provocative: sad, anti-social man-boy looks for love and mostly fails. Doesn’t sound too interesting. But Diaz dresses it up something wonderful, with colorful characters, glib cultural and literary references, a one-sided 20th century history of the D.R., and a touch of the supernatural. It’s a true sancocho, and it goes down just as easily.
While I greatly enjoyed it I did not love it. It felt a little too breezy to merit that kind of investment. The sentence fragments annoyed me at times, and the chronological jumps too. (I think I’m beginning to dislike that device period, unless there’s a damn good reason. Here there was not.) It was frustrating that the book devoted more time to Oscar’s family than to him (most egregious in Beli’s history).
But overall, it was wonderfully entertaining, funny, and touching (I would say “heart-breaking” but that requires more emotional involvement than I actually experienced). I would read another of Mr. Diaz’s novels, which is maybe the best praise an author can hear.