Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Book Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

As you may already know, I am in the book club at my local library now, and we've now moved on to reading The Whole World Over by Julia Glass. But last month was The Brief Wondrous Live of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (I need to learn shortcuts for symbols in blog posts...). WOW, what a piece of literature. I absolutely loved it. (Cover photo from Amazon)

Now, as I am not a writer, I don't know all the proper terms for his style of writing or for writing in general, so just bear with me. That's not the important part anyhow. The important part is this: READ THIS BOOK! Haha. But seriously.

Diaz's style is very casual, but not without detail. The book is written such that each section is the perspective of a different character at a different point in time. I am not sure that I would call them chapters, although technically I suppose they are, but they are much longer than what we would consider normal chapters and they aren't exactly chronological either. It is almost as though each section is written such that it implies that the narrator interviewed various people and then wrote that section based on each person's perspective of that span of time.

The profanity and vulgarity was, at first, alarming. However, it contributes much to the story. I know some people are offended easily by this, and believe that great literature can be written without resorting to this type of language, but I truly believe that the style and language conveys much about the culture in which the story is based and helps to convey the desperation, drama, and detail that make this story so great.

A brief (and I mean REALLY brief) summary: Oscar is an outcast in his Dominican family, community, and school. He and his sister live in New York; he is overweight, loves video games and sci-fi-fantasy, and is basically a huge nerd who's not actually all that smart. He falls in love many times and is broken with each failed attempt at love. He does not have the stereotypical Dominican male success with women, so even amongst his nerdy Dominican male "friends" he is still the outcast. His sister is a rebel, but deep down cares about him and wants to see him happy. Their mother's story is tragic, and without going into graphic detail, I will say that her aunt took her in after a horrible childhood in Trujillo's Dominican Republic - she lost her parents to the regime, floated around to various homes, and was finally recovered by her aunt who tried to help her become an upstanding woman. She got wrapped up in a lot of drama in her early adulthood, including a romance with one of Trujillo's men who was cheating on his wife, and was nearly killed more than once. Eventually she ended up in New York with her two kids, and they were pretty much raised there.

I don't think it would spoil anything to reveal that Oscar dies in the end - the title pretty much says it all. But the winding drama that has all led to it is so important. The profanity, the vulgar and explicit language to describe everything from sex to the basics of a woman's body to the beatings Oscar and his mother endured at different points in their lives - it really conveys the desperation of the Dominican Republic as a whole as its people struggled to simply survive under Trujillo and then try to pick up the pieces after the man himself was finally gone. The author includes many extensive footnotes, at the beginning of the book mostly, that give information regarding the recent history of the country and its culture, also full of profanity and emotion and explicit descriptions of violence. Quite informative, especially for the white girl who grew up on the west coast and was "educated" with the increasingly inadequate standard history books of our school system. The footnotes contribute to the feeling of desperation and hopelessness that an entire generation and a half felt while living under Trujillo and his cronies. The footnotes also come right out and say, in so many words, that what we are taught about this country and its history is essentially sugar-coated lie - that is, if we are taught anything about it at all.

Now, I understand that the part of history this book refers to is SO recent compared to the standard requirements for history classes (in high school, at least), but I believe the author is making a broader point about history of cultures and countries - our education on these matters is embarrassingly inadequate and we PERPETUATE it rather than change it. Let's keep in mind that this is a fiction book, but it is based in a history that is very real and largely misunderstood. I am no expert on this history either, but this book has inspired me to seek more information.

At any rate, my point is that YOU SHOULD READ THIS BOOK. About half the ladies in my book club said they didn't like it because it was so depressing and they got so wrapped up in how awful the violence was and that the narrative was so hopeless...but I truly found it amazing. And I don't meant to sound morbid at all by loving this book so much; I simply thought the style, diction, detail...all of it, it was all fantastic. I am looking forward to reading more by Junot Diaz, and I would love to meet him if the opportunity arises.