Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can't say what inspired me to pick this up, except that it was available as an audio book through my library, and I didn't know what I wanted to listen to next. I'm glad I went in without expectations, because I think the author did a lot of things with this book I might have closed my mind against if I expected something else.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao tells the story of a US-born Dominican boy named Oscar de León, cursed to never find love. The narrative takes us from modern-day America back to the early reign of Trujillo, the Dominican dictator assassinated in 1961, and forward into the narrator's hope for the future. The story is actually a first-person account by Yunior, who doesn't step into the story until about halfway through. He falls in love with Oscar's sister and becomes Oscar's only friend, and witness to the curse plaguing him and his family.

Oscar is the consummate nerd. He's overweight, obsessed with all things SF, and spends much of his copious free time writing out his epic tales. In college, Yunior finds Oscar sitting in his room watching Akira most days. I was worried the narrator would blame Oscar's lack of a love life on his nerdy habits, but Yunior, himself, is also into geeky things, and he has no trouble attracting two, sometimes three women at a time. (Not that the women know how many he's seeing.) There is some fat shaming in Oscar's depiction, and, though we see how hard it is for Oscar to try to take up running, Yunior isn't terribly sympathetic to Oscar's struggle with his weight.

The story's attitude toward women is hard to pinpoint. As Oscar treats them like an unattainable goal to keep throwing himself at until he racks up enough Nice Guy points, and Yunior treats them mostly as interchangeable objects to have sex with, it would be easy to call this a misogynist narrative. Except, we also get several sections in the perspective of Lola, Oscar's sister, and we hear of their mother's struggles in the Dominican Republic as an attractive, dark-skinned girl. So the female characters we see in any depth are just as fully developed as Oscar and Yunior.

Most of my interest in this book lay in the perspective of Dominican culture, both in the Dominican Republican and in the immigrant communities in the US. I know precious little of the history and culture, and, while this is hardly a comprehensive lesson, it did lend me a lot of insight. Yunior is proud of his heritage, but he doesn't romanticize it. He's well aware of its limitations and how it shaped the immigrant communities he and Oscar are a part of.

The choice of language in this book can be disorienting. Yunior can go from talking like a professor to spouting Spanish profanity to a street lingo peppered liberally with the n word. It was discomfiting to hear that word dropped so casually, even by someone reclaiming it. Yunior's language choices are essential to understanding Oscar's troubles with fitting in, though.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is one of those books I'll keep thinking about long after I've finished reading it. There's a lot going on, even in what look like the most straightforward scenes. I'm not sure I could recommend it to anyone who wouldn't be angry with me for not preparing them, but the best way to approach it is unprepared, with your mind open but aware of where it's coming from.

The edition I took out from the library also included Drown, a short story collection. Most of the stories are about Yunior, the narrator of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. They cover his childhood in the Dominican Republic, his life in New Jersey and girlfriends he's had, and a boy without a face who features in two of the stories. The final story in the collection tells how Yunior's father came to the US and gained citizenship, and why it took him so long to bring his family to live with him. The stories lend some perspective to Yunior's characterization, and they offer more cultural context, but I wouldn't have picked them up on their own.

I listened to an audio edition of this book, narrated by Jonathan Davis and Staci Snell. I thought the former narrator did an excellent job of carrying most of the book, and the latter did a fine job on reading the few female-perspective sections. Davis sounded authentically Latino when the narrative called for it, though I can't comment on whether he sounded Dominican. He treated the material as a performance. I felt he stepped into Yunior's role in the story, rather than just reading his words. I'm glad I listened to this on audio, because the Spanish interspersed throughout the text is easier to get in context if you know how it's supposed to sound, and Davis's inflection made it a lot easier to follow.

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