The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
I really enjoyed Díaz’s voice here — even beyond the geek references, his writing has a clever & confident conversational elegance — and the content was often absorbing, but I was disappointed to find that the parts didn’t add up to a whole.
Díaz introduces us to Oscar, then looks elsewhere, only to return occasionally — so that this Life of Oscar is missing its main character for at least half the book. Díaz also declines to allow Oscar to grow. Is he crippling his novel’s potential power, or boldly avoiding cliche? I can imagine some defenses here — to read it as a tragedy (it’s the pathos, stupid, not the character development), and place it in a context of stories like Jaime Hernandez’s Death of Speedy Ortiz (in which the titular climax is never shown, only hinted at, and the title character’s importance is shown only through his effect on friends and family). But I’m still left feeling unsatisfied.
The much-discussed geek references are thrilling to geek readers who have never encountered them in a Pulitzer-winning novel before, sort of like hearing characters swear on early South Park. On a few occasions they really add another dimension of meaning to a real-life scene, or conversely demonstrate the depth of feeling previously unnoticed in lines from a campy old Stan Lee script. I wish this happened more often; usually they’re more superficial. Obviously Oscar gets a lot out of his fandom, but I don’t think Díaz ever really explores what he’s getting or how that works.
The most successful characters are the women. It’s especially rewarding to move around in time and have the past deepen our understanding of the future. As we learn about the tortures that shaped each stubborn young woman into a haunted matriarch, we begin to love and forgive them.
A couple formal things threw me — is Yunior narrating the whole book? Why is one (and only one) chapter narrated in Lola’s voice (after a brief second-person introduction in italics)? How is the story enhanced by the revelation that we’re hearing all this from a guy who sort of knew some of the characters in college? If hearing Yunior say “I guess I could have handled that better, but in the end I didn’t, oh well” makes the book more realistic, but less satisfying, are we better off?
Díaz is a joy to read; I’d love to see him do non-fiction, especially arts criticism. He knows a lot about people, and books, and what they can do to each other. I really wish this one had come together for me.