Monday, August 2, 2010

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

"The beauty! The beauty!" (page 345)

The other day I mentioned that Junot Diaz is so far, the best writer I've discovered this year. He has his own unique style - fearless,  casual and cool. He defies categorization. I've never seen writing like this before. The Pulitzer Prize winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is written in English but with so many Spanish words and phrases thrown in. There's no glossary for non-Spanish speakers. If you don't speak the language, well then that's too bad. But seriously, you can still read the book, however, you'll miss so much of the humor, the fun and the incredible style and energy of Diaz that makes him one of a kind. That's why I mentioned he is fearless. For an author to write a bilingual novel without a glossary, he'd be labeled arrogant for sure but obviously he didn't see it that way.

I found this quotation on the internet from Junot Diaz where he was asked by a journalist if he was trying to alienate non-Spanish speakers from reading his book:

"...people have come to me and asked me…  are you to lock out your non-Dominican reader, you know? And I’m like, no? I assume any gaps in a story and words people don’t understand, whether it’s the nerdish stuff, whether it’s the Elvish, whether it’s the character going on about Dungeons and Dragons, whether it’s the Dominican Spanish, whether it’s the sort of high level graduate language, I assume if people don’t get it that this is not an attempt for the writer to be aggressive. This is an attempt for the writer to encourage the reader to build community, to go out and ask somebody else. For me, words that you can’t understand in a book aren’t there to torture or remind people that they don’t know. I always felt they were to remind people that part of the experience of reading has always been collective. You learn to read with someone else. Yeah you may currently practice it in a solitary fashion, but reading is a collective enterprise. And what the unintelligible in a book does is to remind you how our whole, lives we’ve always needed someone else to help us with reading."

It's true that besides the Spanish there are various references to all things Lord of the Rings which would be lost on someone who isn't familiar with the books or the films. There are also several references to the X-Men and other science fiction characters that I didn't know and Diaz does not add any footnotes to explain it all. I just had to look up the ones I wondered about. I hope I myself haven't turned off the non-Spanish speakers. If you don't speak the language, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is still a beautiful and wonderful page-turner of a novel. It tells the story of Oscar, a teenage immigrant from the Dominican Republic who's overweight and can't get a date. He's obsessed with The Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons and science fiction novels and wants to write his own book one day. He dreams of falling in love but as the years pass and he remains obese and unattractive, this dream seems to slip further and further away. Oscar blames it on the fuku, a curse that has haunted his family for years. I loved Oscar and I loved the supporting players - Oscar's mom, his sister Lola, his grandmother called La Inca, and his best friend Yunior. What a cast of characters and what stories they had to tell! This is truly deserving of the Pulitzer Prize and I only wish Diaz was more prolific. It took him eleven years to write this one.

It's interesting to add that actually all the Pulitzer Prize winners I've read (and I haven't read many of them) have been wonderful. The ones that come to mind are Middlesex, The Amazing Adventures of Kavlier and Clay and The Confederacy of Dunces. All of them are great novels and there's surprisingly a lot of similarities among them and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The epic scope, the cast of fabulous characters and the layers of different stories.  I think I must pick up more Pulitzers especially since I may have to wait for years for Junot Diaz's next book. At least I still have his critically acclaimed short story collection, Drown, to look forward to.


  1. I've heard good things about this one, but I haven't read it yet. I don't read Spanish so I wonder what my reading experience would be like..

  2. That may have been my problem when I read this, having not read nor seen Lord of the Rings nor X-men.

  3. Hi, Mrs. B! With the exception of Confederacy of Dunces, I think we both read and liked the same Pulitzer Prize winners.:)

    I loved The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, too. I can read a little Spanish, but I speak Geek better, so I enjoyed the sci-fi stuff. But sci-fi aside, I loved the life stories of his mother, his sister, and Oscar himself.

  4. @irisonbooks - It's still a wonderful read even if you don't speak Spanish. But I must say it's a richer experience if you do.

    @BookQuoter - some of the sci-fi stuff was lost on my too although I do know my Tolkien.

    @fantaghiro23 - Glad you loved it and that we liked the same books.

  5. well you haven't put me off! this has been on my TBR list forever, yeah I know I should get round to it ;)

  6. Like Jessica, this has been on my tbr forever. I have even taken it out of the library multiple times-- I just haven't ever gotten to it before it's due! I've got to! I've got to!

  7. I would like to read this one. I haven't talked to many readers who are on the fence about it - it is either loved or hated. Such strong reactions automatically make me wonder which side of the fence I'll fall on.

  8. I've been meaning to read this for quite awhile. Thanks for the review! I'm going to move it up my TBR list :)

  9. I've noticed the same about Pulitzer winners and me - they tend to match my taste, and I especially loved all the ones you mentioned! I've been trying to read through the full list of winners, but it's a project that will surely take me years. Anyway, I'm glad you loved Oscar! I really did as well.

  10. I also feel that connection with Pulitzer winners (also with Booker). I've this book on the TBR and can't wait. I heard an interview on podcast with Diaz and he sounded so down to earth but super brilliant. Also, I love Lord of the Rings and XMen and while I don't speak Spanish, at least I've Tagalog and Visayan, haha, if that helps.


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