Oscar Wao is an overweight nerd in New Jersey who dreams of one day becoming “the Dominican JRR Tolkien.” More than anything, Oscar wants a girlfriend, but the gals are sadly not impressed by his gargantuan vocabulary and mastery of role playing games. The novel is a contemporary epic that spans two countries and three generations: Oscar’s travails have their roots in a family curse, which got his grandfather imprisoned under the dictatorial Trujillo regime in the DR, and later left his mother for dead in a canefield until she found salvation in a mystical mongoose.
Obviously, I loved this book, but I have to say that more than once while reading it, I felt that odd mixture of admiration, self-recrimination, pleasure, and envy that you feel when you see another writer’s vision that has a lot of overlap with a work in progress of your own. Curse you, Diaz! I wanted to be the first to write the pan-generational, transnational epic story of a cursed Latino family blending Latin American magic realism with contemporary U.S. speculative fiction and a hefty dose of progressive political commentary! But as the novel’s narrator says, every Latino family thinks there’s a curse on it, so it had to be done sooner or later and I’m sure there’ s room for more than one. (And if I ever even come within miles of Junot’s masterful prose and brilliant characterization I will be beyond thrilled.)
Speaking of brilliant characterization, Oscar is destined to be one of the great characters of literature. His Spock-like dialogue; the alienation he feels because of his race, weight, and sheer nerdiness; his earnest but mostly futile attempts to turn things around for himself – all of these make him an incredibly original and sympathetic character.
One word of warning, though: a lot of people have reported trouble getting into the book at first, including me. One friend of mine said she had trouble with the narrator’s colloquial style. That didn’t bother me, but I did find myself resisting the relatively high level of “telling” – a lot of long, sweeping narratives (including footnotes!) with relatively few dramatic scenes. In that way, it’s not all that different from One Hundred Years of Solitude and a lot of other works of magic realism, which undoubtedly influenced Diaz. As with Solitude, once I got into it, I loved it. I actually enjoyed watching how Diaz managed to break the sacred show-it-don’t-tell-it-rule left and right and still create an incredibly compelling, richly detailed story.
I’m a bit late on the bandwagon with this one, since Junot Diaz already won the Pulitzer Prize for Oscar Wao, but I’ve been a fan of his ever since I read his short-story collection, Drown, a few years ago. Buy both books, read them, give them to friends and family for the holidays, and bask in the wonder….