Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

I originally heard about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao on a Sunday-morning program. In the segment, a lot was made of the fact that the main character—the eponymous Oscar Wao— was a comic-geek, and the author liberally referenced comics and other pop-culture minutiae in the telling of Oscar’s tale. This facet would nary induce a blip on the literary radar were it not for the fact that Wao had just won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

That the highest honor in bookdom should go to a novel whose hero is a comic lover and whose author used four-color lore—at times daring to (gasp!) quote comic books—was unheard of. Apparently, the correspondent was unfamiliar with 2001 Pulitzer Prize winner, the exemplary The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, a novel that doesn’t merely cite comics, but is actually immersed in that particular art form’s world. Fortunately, the segment was more journalistic than sensationalistic, but the inference that the Pulitzer Prize committee had lowered its standards or that the award had been cheapened by honoring Díaz’s work was plainly evident.

I didn’t care about the Pulitzer or the disparaging subtext of the segment—comics aficionados are used to it—the correspondent had me at “Fantastic Four,” to paraphrase Jerry Maguire. Wao went straight to my Christmas list and made it into my greedy little paws a few months later.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the story of an unsightly, social misfit Dominican’s journey to getting laid. Díaz uses the idea of achieving sex as a euphemism for Oscar’s struggle in overcoming his nigh-crippling shyness/awkwardness/not-fitting-in-ness and gaining acceptance. It’s a universal theme, one not exclusive to Dominicans.

Much to my delight, the book opens with an epigraph from Fantastic Four, Vol. 1, No. 49. Díaz further sets the stage with a poem from Nobel Prize (for Literature) winner Derek Walcott. Both present important facets to Oscar’s character: his affection for comics—more importantly the odd sense of greatness that geeks have for being expert in something beyond their fellow man, whether facility in comic books or fluency in Klingonese—and his feeling of displacement.

Author Díaz quotes World-Devourer Galactus in Wao’s opening epigraph

A short introduction on the Dominican idea of fukú follows. Fukú is an ancient curse with which our hero believes himself to be cursed. Whether Oscar is a victim of fukú or simply uses it to explain his perceived misfortune is left for the reader to decide.

An intriguing and clever start, the efficacy of which was immediately derailed by Díaz’s preponderance of footnotes. Or should I say, foot“novels”? Four of the seven introductory pages discussing fukú contain them. One travels half a page only to continue and conclude at the bottom fourth of the succeeding one. They are less frequent as the story progresses, but not less voluminous—at times extending more than two pages!

These short novels-within-a-novel most often explain references to Dominican culture, figures and language in the main text. They are engrossing in their own right, but intrusive. I found myself taking a deep breath before tackling them and pausing to recollect the main storyline upon my return. It was like putting a traffic stop on the Autobahn.

Far fewer of the notes concerned comic-book or pop-culture references—most of those were written into the text in a way that they needed no further explanation—and the info contained in those was already familiar to me. So it not only impeded the flow of my reading, but also proved aggravating each time I realized I need not have stopped, which I continued to do for fear that I might meet some nugget of info of which I wasn’t aware.

When Díaz wasn’t interrupting Oscar’s journey with footnotes, he was abruptly changing the story’s point-of-view. From Oscar to his sister, to the childhood tale of his mother, and back again. There were chapters that I was several pages into before I realized the narrator had changed, forcing me to return to the chapter’s start.

An author’s use of language or particular character’s vernacular normally deepens the reading experience. The opening dialogue of John Kennedy Toole’s brilliant 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, is a perfect example. The heavy Cajun accent that Toole employs takes some getting used to, but well worth the effort. And once familiar—by the end of that inaugural scene, easily—it proves no obstacle for the remainder of the book. Like anchovies in a well-crafted puttanesca: they add depth and complexity to the dish, but will only go unnoticed if not included.

Díaz’s liberal use of Spanish could have had the same effect, enhancing the depth and complexity of the novel and its characters. Unfortunately, the reader is never allowed to familiarize themselves with Wao’s voice—there are just too many other distractions—so the author’s use of language only exacerbates the situation.

I got the sense as I was reading that Díaz didn’t trust his writing talents or the story or both. It was as if he were trying to be clever to compensate.

Wao is nonetheless a good book. Not a great book. Just a good one. And that has less to do with its not meeting my high expectations than with the author’s overuse of these literary devices.

And because Wao is a Pulitzer Prize winner, it has to be held at a higher standard. Compared to the aforementioned Chabon and Toole classics, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao falls painfully short and gets a disappointing three out of five spiders.

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