Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

You can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in.”

Junot Diaz

Oscar-WaoSo this particular read came about because recently I discovered the Tournament of Books over at The Morning News, and going back through old posts revealed that Oscar Wao won the tournament in 2008. Seeing as it was described as a book about geek culture, I thought I’d give it a try.

Firstly: it is about geek culture. Well, sort of. Certainly it’s packed with references to Tolkien, and obscure ones at that, bits and pieces from The Silmarillion and The History of Middle-earth, etc. So that was fun.

But that’s not what Oscar Wao is really about. The titular Oscar is a self-obsessed SFF fan, a well-characterised cliché whose very uncoolness gives us a window onto the values and the hopes of the Dominican culture he belongs to and the aspirations of his own family, affected as they were by the ravages of real-life Dominican dictator Trujillo. (It should probably be noted here that Diaz is himself Dominican, and Oscar Wao is something of a homage to his history.) Told through the perspective of Oscar’s college friend Yunior, the narrative feels fundamentally like one of failure: personal failure to live up to cultural roles, cultural failure to provide fulfilling versions of those roles. As Diaz sees it, Dominican men have a choice between social outcast (Oscar) and stud (Yunior), while Dominican women have no choice: some of the most affecting parts of the novel for me were the stories of Oscar’s mother Beli and his sister Lola, both of whom suffer hugely from their failure to realise that to the men who sleep with them they are nothing more than objects, property to be guarded and treated as their boyfriends and husbands see fit. It’s a situation that leads to tragic, failed lives like Yunior’s and Oscar’s, bereft of real human interaction; and yet Oscar’s briefly triumphant and very affecting attempt to break those cultural choices also only leads to downfall and tragedy.

I’m not convinced by Oscar Wao, though, despite all its critical acclaim. Undoubtedly it’s a Good Book, and Yunior’s narrative voice is spirited and energetic, littered with Spanish (I don’t speak any Spanish, so that was an interesting reading experience). But I have problems with the ending, which feels like it’s supposed to be more triumphant than it actually is. It’s a victory for Oscar, not for Ybon, the girl he supposedly loves; it feels like ultimately the novel begins to treat women as objects along with the characters.

I don’t know that I’d read it again; already it’s beginning to fade, and I only finished it yesterday evening. But I would recommend it as a spirited and imaginative look at Dominican history, at an era and a culture we don’t often encounter in literature; it’s a book to broaden horizons, perhaps, rather than one which really works on its own terms.

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