Monday, April 27, 2009

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008, which is why it was in my pile of books to read. I also went to a book club discussion about it.
The book is really difficult for me to describe. It is basically the story of Oscar, a hugely obese "Dominican ghetto-nerd" who is a character you love to root for, but at the same time he is incredibly pathetic and hopeless (and thus frustrating!). Oscar's family is from the Dominican Republic, although he and his sister Lola mostly grow up in New Jersey. Their mother's family did not survive the Trujillo dictatorship, and she herself fled to the United States as a teenager. Most of the story, including the history of the family, is told by Yunior, a sometime-boyfriend of Lola's who tries to help Oscar out of his depression in college. Two of the sections are told by Lola, but she only speaks of her own view of the situation, and she seems to be writing to Yunior, though it is difficult to tell.
What I liked best about this book was the writing - it was so much fun to read, even if it was hard to follow at times. Yunior throws in a ton of Spanish, as well as a tremendous amount of nerd-slang that I found really amusing. Most of it you can figure out from context, because it is certainly not explained for you at all. Yunior's voice is entrancing, in a way that I would not have expected.
As one of the 12 Mini-Challenges that I am doing this year, I went to a book discussion (#10). It was really interesting to discuss this particular book, because it is difficult, and sometimes inaccesible. There were seven of us at the meeting, I think three of whom had not finished the book. We brought up some topics that we thought were interesting, though we did not delve very deeply into any of them. It was more of a sharing of our thoughts, rather than really digging into the book. One thing that we didn't talk about much was the mysticism in the book, the presence of the golden Mongoose and the Man Without a Face. But it was otherwise a good book chat. I also read the book for my 999 Challenge, for which I am reading all prize winners (my list for this one is here). And, not to leave out anything, I am also reading this for the New Author Challenge and the A-Z Challenge.


Rebecca Reid said...

Sounds interesting the way you describe it. I'm hesitating on this one because I've heard it has a horrible amount of bad language. That makes it sound cheap in my mind. What did you think? Did it cheapen it or build the characters?

Jessica said...

The language definitely does not cheapen the characters, although it may still bother you. I think that the character of Yunior acts as a wonderful narrator, and his use of language - spanish, slang, and swearing - all fits with who he is supposed to be. I know what you mean though - sometimes bad language just distracts from the book, making it unreadable. I never felt that way with this book, though.

Ali said...

Rebecca, the language is definitely an important part of the narrator's voice, I don't think it cheapens the book at all. But, I agree that if vulgarity bothers you in fiction, this book probably isn't for you.

I'm still working my way through this one on audio. Parts of it are brilliant, parts are funny, and parts seem to put me to sleep if I listen at night.

zooftra said...

I think the golden eyed mongoose was there as an element to show when there was a break in the fuku (curse) on the family. In the Feng Shui tradition, Mongooses (geese?) are symbols that bring good luck, and are often depicted sitting on a bed of gold coins.