Junot Diaz’s bi-cultural novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is itself a wondrous and wonderful book in so many ways. While it’s not for everyone — some reviewers were irritated by matters that could indeed be irritating to the wrong reader — I recommend it highly to anyone who won’t be put off by those matters. (For details, see the paragraphs below this one.) First of all, the very premise of the story is truly engaging: an awkward boy from the Dominican Republic in the days of Trujillo grows up to be an awkward nerd in New Jersey, with a fascinating supporting cast of relatives and friends. Second, the language and rhythm keep you reading (actually, in my case, they kept me listening, as I went though the entire work in audiobook form before going back and reading some of it in print). The footnotes are amazing and amusing. In some ways I would have to say that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao reads as if it were written by a Creative Writing professor from MIT who grew up in the DR… but wait, it actually was written by a Creative Writing professor from MIT who grew up in the DR!
So what is it that irritates some readers? One problem is that the book isn’t actually written in English. Large chunks of it are in Spanglish, which I found completely convincing — what else would you expect Dominican immigrants to New Jersey to speak? I never found that the Spanish words and phrases got in the way of understanding, even though I don’t speak Spanish. To take a random example:
Before 1951, our orphaned girl had lived with another foster family, monstrous people if the rumors are to be believed, a dark period of her life neither she nor her madre ever referenced. Their very own página en blanco.
I know, from listening to many of my students and to Spanish-speaking people on the street, that this kind of combination is perfectly realistic. But you can see why it would upset certain readers. Maybe it helps to have a background in linguistics in Latin, even if I don’t know Spanish.
Another issue of language is the excessive use of the N word. While this is distressing to me too, I can’t challenge its authenticity, both from popular culture and from hearing its use by black people. Yes, it bothers me, but that’s no reason not to read the book. The author is himself a Dominican geek, after all, so we can trust him on this matter.
Speaking of geeks, some reviewers were bothered by the frequent references to Tolkien and Star Wars and Dune and the like. But those too are realistic and are essential for letting you get to know the protagonist. If you don’t like those references, maybe you should think about the fact that the book isn’t about you: it’s about a Dominican nerd. One reviewer recommends reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao with its Cliffs Notes volume in hand — unfortunately there isn’t one, but that just makes it more fun to read (or listen to). Take it as a challenge, but take it!