Friday, October 16, 2009

Review of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Book Info: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, novel, 335 pages

Author Info: Junot Diaz was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, raised in New Jersey, educated at Rutgers, is a professor at MIT, and lives in New York City. Author of a previous collection of short stories: Drown. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is his first novel.

Plot Summary: The book's narrator Yunior, who is later revealed to have been the title character Oscar's college roomate and fellow writing student at Rutgers, recreates the formative years of Oscar's childhood and adolescence, as well as the history of Oscar's immediate family: his mother, sister, father, aunts and uncles. The narrator also chronicles the atrocities of the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic, and its impact on Oscar's family and expatriate community in New Jersey.

Analysis: This book is not properly speaking a work of speculative fiction. The reason I am reviewing on a spec fic website is because the book impressively draws connections between some of the common tropes, themes, and characters of genre literature to enable the reader to grasp and confront the more horrible aspects of human nature revealed during the atrocities of the twentieth century. Real world issues like genocide, systematic rape and tortue, killing squads, kidnapping, political assasination and breeding programs are all detailed in the book and the long term effects it has on the generations to follow. What is truly astonishing is the way the author uses genre literature as a tool to help him cope and endure what happened in the Trujillo regime, and in so doing provides himself and his readers a powerful tool for healing.

The title character, Oscar, is a classic sci fi fantasy loving D and D role playing 300 pound nerd whose uppermost desire in life is to get laid. Unfortunately for our hero, being three hundred pounds, and a nerd, and unathletic, and whose large and pompous sounding vocabulary tends to alienate rather than impress the females around him, the likelihood of it ever happening is dismal, and makes his quest to get some toto by turns comic and sad. In a sense it becomes a kind of antithesis quest to getting the ring back to Mordor. And the narrator has great fun satirizing Oscar as much as he does learning to appreciate what Oscar tried to do with his life. Oscar's uppermost desire in life, besides getting laid and falling in love, is to become the Dominican Tolkien. His steady diet of sci fi, fantasy, and other forms of genre entertainment provide him with a creative outlet for his fears and frustrations.

But Oscar is not entirely the escapist we think. During the course of the book, as he learns his family history, and the horrors of the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic, he learns to look squarely at the evil he sees around him as well as to confront the legacy of the evil and damge done by those in his employ. One thing Oscar has, one weapon as surely as sharp as an elven sword, is language. And when Oscar decides to express himself and comment on what he sees, he can be precise and passionate and as shocking as the cocking of a gun.

In the end Oscar attains his heart's desire, attains it briefly, and in doing so provides an education in belief, beauty, and love to those around him who have grown cynical. He redeems those who loved him in a surprisingly unforseeable way.

Other thoughts: The most astonishing aspect of this book, and for this it truly deserves the Pulitzer, is the way the author brings a reader who probably has little or no interest in genre fiction, and shows him just how bizarre and unprecedented the real world antics of Trujillo's regime were. Trujillo can only be described and understood as evil, and the narrator, as he recreates the atrocities finds that using the fantasy references provide him with a touchstone, a way of grasping what really defies understanding: evil. Trujillo is flat out evil, as evil as Sauron. The most disturbing aspect, when you confront your supposedly twentieth century enlightened self, the one that believes that pure evil is just the stuff of outdated religions, that the only way to cope with a Trujillo(or for that matter Stalin, or Mussolini, or Hitler, or Milosevic), is to label them evil, and work backwards from there Genre lit has quite a few things to say about the nature of evil that modernist fiction has kind of refused to touch for fear of seeming unrealistic. The narrator Yunior will toss out lines like: "Homegirl understood that when Gondolin falls you don't sit around waiting for balrogs to tap on your door, you make fucking moves." How else does one cope with the military coup de tat, and the attendent death squads? There is a solace and solidarity in the books that modernist and mainstream authors are hard put to reproduce.

In the end, after finishing the book, I see that the author's purpose was to show that genre books, as much as literary or mainstream books are all about building communities. We share common tropes and metaphors and in these we use as tools to help us survive the worst that can befall us.

Similar Reads: Crap, I don’t think I can think of a single title to compare it too. Although from what I have read Diaz's short story collection, Drown, supposedly reimagines the Odyssey from the perspective of the Telemachus and Penelope, updated to a modern setting of course. Other than that the books mentioned in the story bear re reading or at least a first reading: Octavia Butler's novels, the Dune books, and of course The Lord of the Rings.

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