Anybody who's been in a bookstore during the last several years has heard about this book, of course. I was living overseas when it won both the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, but when I came back to the United States for a visit I'd see great teetering stacks of copies of Junot Diaz's novel in every bookstore I went into: "Now in Paperback!" or "Suggested Summer Reading" or "Our Booksellers Recommend!" etc.etc.etc. To tell you the truth, I got sick of looking at its woodblocky red-and-white cover; I was going to resist the hype. Besides, the theme--overweight Dominican-American in New Jersey dreams his life away with his manga--seemed both depressing and way too hipster. I had heard that the reader really had to be well-versed in Alan Moore's "Watchman" series (which I was slightly aware of) and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (which I knew extremely well, but still didn't think I wanted to deal with more Middle Earth) to really appreciate the work. I'd also read that the reader needed to understand Spanish to follow the plot, and though I've lived in Spain and speak the language quite well, that didn't mean that I wanted it sprinkled through a book that was purportedly in English. ( I've never gotten over my aversion of Cormac McCarthy's "All My Pretty Horses", though my dislike of that book probably has more to do with the hero's Mary Sue perfection--he plays chess! he can court the rich man's daughter! he can pull a bullet out of his flesh and cauterize himself to boot!--than the great swathes on untranslated Spanish that litter McCarthy's so-called masterpiece). Junot Diaz left the Dominican Republic at six, too, and since Edwidge Danticat had also left her native land when young, I wasn't sure I wanted my next book to be also by an American author. (Yes, I am still feeling burned from "When the Elephants Dance"). But once again I needed an audio book, as "Krik?Krak!" was only about five hours long. I listned to a snippet of the audio of "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." Who was this Jonathan Davis guy? He sounded great in both English and Spanish. (Turns out he was born in Puerto Rico but now lives in New York City.) I went ahead and bought the book.
It's fairly easy to write an awfully earnest book where everything is terrible, the world is falling to pieces, the characters are struggling through life, and even though there may be a bit of light at the end of the tunnel, the general feeling is of a chin-up grimness. It's another thing to tell the stories of a public tragedy--a country under the control of a brutal dictator, and a private tragedy as well--a family, scarred by events beyond their control, just cannot seem to climb out of the trap of dysfunction, and have the listener laugh along the way, even when people are being being killed. This relentless hipster irony might not be to everyone's taste, and I know that many readers find this book relentlessly show-offy, or artificial, or have gotten snared up in the Spanish or the endless popular-cultural references, or have found the irony just too heavy handed, but I loved it.
The "Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" is, ostensibly, the story of Oscar de Leon, told in tandem by his sister Lola (narrated capably by Staci Snell, but this is Jonathan Davis's book all the way) and a mysterious omniscient narrator who turns out, quite late into the book, to be Yunior, Oscar's roommate in college, who, naturally enough, isn't the most reliable of narrators. It is, of course, much more than that. It's the story of the the runaway Lola, their mother Beli's life in the Dominican Republic, and of the country's struggles both during the last years of Trujillo's dictatorship, and during the modern era. It's about not fitting quite in the land you were born in or the land that your family left. It's the story of a a private and personal fuku--curse--and zafa--the counterspell--as people try to make sense of what they've endured. And yes, there's lots of Spanish--as the book constantly shifts gears--but most of the time it is quite understandable in context. And there's lots of "Watchmen" references, and nods to "The Matrix", and "Lord of the Rings." I do wonder how well this book will age, and if later generations will find this novel incomprehensible. One can argue that a truly great piece of literature should speak for more than its time and place, and I am not sure that "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" will withstand the demands of time. But what can I say? For right now, for this time, this novel is pretty much perfect.
N.B I apologize for all the accents I've missed in this posting. Frankly, it's a pain dealing with accents, and umlauts, and tildas. It's enough to make me run out and buy a Canadian international keyboard....