Time to discuss The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz from a writer’s perspective. This review is going to be a bit more free flowing than previous ones have been.
This post contains spoilers.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008, along with many other major awards. It is “Important Literature,” with a capital I.
Parts of the novel do deserve the “Important” label. For example, it deals with serious topics such as political corruption, the abuse of women, and culture of the Dominican Republic. The author delves deeply into Dominican history and uses realistic slang, which flavors the text perfectly. The setting is also well developed and enlightening.
The writing often shines. When he describes a neighbor, he says,
… a thirty-something postal employee who wore red on her lips and walked like she had a bell for an ass …
He has created a vibrant image with just a few words. Beginning writers could learn a lot from his descriptions.
Public domain photograph of Santo Domingo from Wikipedia
On the other hand, Junot distances the reader from main character Oscar Wao through his use of a remote narrator. At first we don’t even know who the narrator is. The voice who tells us about Oscar’s life sounds like an old uncle reminiscing, and it doesn’t feel engaged or immediate. Later we learn the narrator is Yunior, Oscar’s sister’s boyfriend. He isn’t even a member of Oscar’s family.
The distance makes the story unfold like we’re watching the action through a camera lens run by someone with an unsteady hand. For a time the lens focuses tightly on Oscar, and the reader only gets glimpses of the real story in the background. When the lens widens a bit, the surroundings finally become clearer.
If you are taken with Oscar’s story, then this camera work is fine. But Oscar’s story is often not compelling. To me, the title of the book should have been The Nonexistent Sex Life of Oscar Wao. I would have been more engaged if the framing story spent time on something more substantial than whether or not Wao ever has intimate relations with a woman.
In fact, sex is a central thread throughout. Chapter three reveals that unlike Oscar, Oscar’s mother had a lot of sex, but with really bad consequences.
As Oscar’s sister Lola says,
One thing you can count on in Santo Domingo. Not the lights, not the law.
That never goes away.
And sex is a really dangerous thing. That pretty much sums up the book.
The Bottom Line
Oscar Wao never made me think, “Wow.” Instead I thought, here’s an immensely talented writer working with some great material, but why didn’t he take it to a higher level?
Have you read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
- Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
- Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
- Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective
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The next book is number 69. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013) – Discussion begins January 9, 2018
Literary fiction, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014
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