Sunday, September 14, 2008

Review of the non-geek geek novel: The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao

I haven't read fiction in ages, heck, I havne't read a book for pleasure in years, but I was inspired to pick up The Brief Wonderful life of Oscar Wao by an NPR story on finding a new book for the American high school english class canon. I was impressed that this book--which I only knew for its associations with Dungeons and Dragons and sci-fi and fantasy--would get so much acclaim, not only winning the Pulitzer and critical raves, but with some going as far as calling it a classic of our time.

The Brief Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz uses a series of flashbacks to give an epic yet intimate portrait of the life and lineage of Oscar Wao, a geeky Domincan kid, from Patterson New Jersey. The story of Oscar's tribulations as a social outcast in high school and in college at Rutgers, is so believable in that his affected speech patterns (like the heroes in cheap sci-fi) and penchant for using SAT words in everyday conversation, is easily identifiable to anyone who has traveled in such circles. The book also details the life of his family--Oscar's sister, his single mother, his grand parents in the Dominican Republic (DR)--and the curse that plagues their household. Delving into three generations of Oscar's life, we get a picture not just of a troubled boy, but also of a troubled DR.

I wish I could say I loved it, but the book dragged at times despite the prose style which was brisk and excellent. Part of what worked is how the conversational narrator references something from geekdom on nearly every page (weird to see something part of my 'childhood' identity that always labeled me as outsider has become high brow mainstream). The narrator casually drops obscure allusions to comics (Watchmen, X-men, Stan Lee, Fantastic Four; the narrator refers to himself as The Watcher), Dungeons and Dragons (the narrator describes a girl losing her virginity as taking 4d10 points of damage), Sci-fi (Oscar calls his sister a Bene-Gesserit witch), Fantasy (Lord of the Rings comes up incessantly; many characters are described as Saurons or Ringwraiths or Orcs). Diaz drops obscure references to genre fiction like Eco or Stoppard reference ancient Greek poets.

Despite its odd unique narrative voice, the book is quite conventional in its subject matter: an immigrant coming of age struggle and the family seeds that led there. Swap out the sci-fi references, and replace the excellent primer into Dominican recent history with Chinese recent history, and this book could have been written by Amy Tan. The book thus drags at times (at least for me) as we follow the tragic lives of Oscar's family and Oscar's own quixotic (a favorite word of mine from SAT prep days) quest for love, and more prosaically his quest to lose his virginity.

However, though the book is not as tight as it could be, I will say that after 300 pages, the payoff (with slight epic magical realism tinge that requires a reading of the comic The Watchmen to fully appreciate) makes the reading worth it.

Final Grade:B
Please rate my review here.

(random connections to the author Junot Diaz, he did his MFA at Cornell, and now teaches at MIT, who manages to attract top notch fiction writers. One of my favorite sci-fi books from high school, the Forever War, was written by another MIT lecturer)
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