Thursday, December 23, 2021

Book 315: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

"That’s life for you. All the happiness you gather to yourself, it will sweep away like it’s nothing. If you ask me I don’t think there are any such things as curses. I think there is only life. That’s enough." 

Dates read: May 11-15, 2019

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Pulitzer Prize, The New York Times best-seller

I grew up in an entirely female household. My mother single parented my sister and I. She had serious boyfriends every now and again, but it was almost always just the three of us. Perhaps it's understandable, then, why I have always favored books by or about women. I know what a femininity crisis looks like, feels like. Men and their concerns have tended to feel slightly alien, like something to study that I'll never be able to fully comprehend.

To say that Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is testosterone-heavy is an understatement. It's a profoundly masculine piece of work. The book tells the life story of Oscar (whose real surname is not "Wao", a mocking mispronunciation of "Wilde", but rather "De Leon"), who is born into a Dominican family and grows up in New Jersey with his mother Hypatia and sister Lola, and is dead by his mid-twenties. Whether that death was avoidable, or whether it's the result of a fuku, a curse, on the De Leon family, whose history is explored in-depth along with that of the Dominican Republic as a whole, is left up to the reader to decide.

Starting when he's a child, the only thing in life Oscar wants is a girlfriend. Not only does he feel pressure to live up to a machismo Dominican ideal, he's the kind of guy that thinks he's in love if a girl smiles at him on the street. Unfortunately for Oscar, he's overweight, awkward, and a big science fiction nerd. This does not render him attractive to most of the girls he knows. The situation does not improve when he goes to college, where he briefly rooms with Yunior, his sister's boyfriend and the narrator of the story. Profoundly depressed, he makes an unsuccessful suicide attempt, after which he's sent to the DR and falls in love with the girl next door, who happens to be a prostitute. She seems to return his affections, but she's already in a relationship, and thus is created a situation doomed to an unhappy ending.

First things first: Junot Diaz is a fantastic writer. The narrative voice he creates for Yunior is like nothing I've ever read before. Diaz's prose is so lively it practically bursts off the page, and is filled with joy and sadness and anger and humor. It's also full of footnotes, Spanish, and pop culture references, and though I dutifully tracked down translations and explainers I honestly think you'd be okay if you just used context clues to figure it out, because otherwise you stop reading and being able to give your full attention to the narrative is the better option. Diaz's storytelling skills, the way he balances all of the elements of the book so it never drags or stumbles and sweeps you along, are a rare thing.

The elephant in the room: Junot Diaz is definitely not a feminist. He's been accused of sexual harassment and the writing in the book would tend to confirm that he has misogynistic tendencies. Yunior is presented as sympathetic although he continually cheats on his partners (including Lola). Oscar's quest for a girlfriend treats the women he desires as objects to be wooed and possessed. A portion of the book focuses on Hypatia's backstory, but presents first and foremost sex and violence. I'm sure it's easier for Diaz to have told the story the way he told it, but with his talent I would have hoped for better. Nevertheless, this is a fantastic book, which I very much enjoyed reading and want to read again someday. Be prepared for some issues with the presentation of women, but otherwise, I would recommend reading this book. 

One year ago, I was reading: Mindhunter

Two years ago, I was reading: Without A Prayer

Three years ago, I was reading: The Prince of Tides

Four years ago, I was reading: The Power

Five years ago, I was reading: Moonlight Palace

Six years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

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