Dizzying, dazzling, and intoxicating, this wonderfully inventive book might just be one of the best reads of the year.
And I’m not going to recommend it to you.
Let me explain. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is a multi-generational tale about a Dominican Republic family that’s afflicted with curse – or fuku, as it’s called in the DR – that culminates in the Oscar of the title, a sad, overweight, hopelessly romantic geek who yearns to be the next J.R.R. Tolkien in a culture full of players and playboys. (The family name is de Leon – Oscar’s classmates tease him with the name “Oscar Wao”, a corruption of “Oscar Wilde.”) The narrative bounces back and forth from Oscar to his sister, his mother, and his grandfather, as the history of the de Leon family is explained between the Dominican Republic and New Jersey. Intertwined with the history is the island dictator Rafael Trujillo, who hovers over the story like Sauron, his bloody and painful reign explained in exhaustive footnotes.
The story is told from the point of view of a classmate of Oscar’s, and is both emotionally deep and screamingly funny. Oscar Wao is the very pinnacle of geek lit – every paragraph is littered with references from old movies to comic books to pulp fiction to fantasy novels to 1980’s Saturday morning cartoons; if you don’t know who Uatu the Watcher is, or know what having an 18 in charisma is, or what the Zentraedi are, or what happens when something gets hit with Darkseid’s Omega Beams, then you’ll be helplessly lost within just a few pages. Added to this is Diaz’s habit of slipping his narrative into Spanish, which means this book is best read with both a Spanish-English dictionary and Wikipedia at the ready.
For those who are looking for a leisurely book, something disposable to read and forget over a weekend, this ain’t the book for you. But if you’re well-versed in your geek-fu and looking for the literary equivalent of a gourmet meal you’ll remember for a long time, then, man, are you in for an experience.