Friday, March 12, 2010

Review of "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Diaz

I've never read anything quite like this book. That author Junot Diaz borrowed much of his own life experience cannot be denied. But this story is also equal parts history and cosmic horror. Some have described it as a personalized history of the Dominican Republic under Raphael Leonidas Trujillo. This is correct to a point: certainly most of it occurs in the real world. However, at its heart, this is a supernatural story about a family curse inflicted by an extra-dimensional demon.

I mention this because you ought not pick up this book expecting it to be a standard stuffy, mis-lit tale about people suffering during a time period (the most popular form of contemporary "literature"). It has some of that, but it is much more.

The first thing you will notice when you pick up the book is the informality of the writing style. Most of the story is narrated by a character named Yunior who we meet in chapter three. His style is rife with expletives, Spanish phrases and references to Tolkien, Lovecraft and Stan Lee. It is a joy to behold and a pleasure to read.

Nerds hold a special place in the book. Yunior considers them to be powerful, incidentally reinforcing my own belief that nerds are running the world. He classifies some interesting people as nerds, including Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, for example If you are unfamiliar with things nerdy, some of the references may go over your head, but this may not be a problem. After all, the Spanish passages go over my head and I still enjoy it.

It's about Oscar, a horribly nerdy and overweight Dominican boy from New Jersey seeking love. It's about his sister who protects him. It's about their mother Belicia whose spirit is crushed in the Dominican Republic. It's about their grandfather Abelard who falls from prosperity. Mostly, it's about the curse (or Fuku) that afflicts their family.

Lastly, it's about Trujillo. The longtime tyrant of the Dominican Republic is introduced in a manner that makes him seem like merely exposition. However, as the narrative continues, the man is built into the book's antagonist. At first, when the narrator refers to Trujillo as "Sauron" or "The Eye" and his underlings like Balaguer and Abbes as "ringwraiths", one thinks that such allusions are merely absurd comparisons to the Lord of the Rings. Then one begins to realize that Yunior is not entirely kidding: in this book, Trujillo, while not literally Sauron, is truly a dark lord of supernatural origin hanging over the narrative like a vile cloud spewed from Orodruin. This blend of fantasy and reality is appealing and compelling.

Overall, it's entertaining, fascinating, infuriating and moving. If you have a passion for politics, an interest in the nerd experience, or a history hard-on, I cannot reccomend this book highly enough.

However, I have a beef. This is something that's been on my mind for awhile now. In the last two years, I've read quite a few books, including this one, that don't use quotation marks. The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt come to mind. Oscar Wao also does not always use indentations when a new character begins speaking.

I must say it. Quotation marks are useful, people. They clearly indicate when somebody is speaking out loud, and sometimes thinking internally. In these books I've often been forced to re-read passages because I didn't understand whether the narrator or a character was talking, or whether action rather than dialogue was occurring. Each time I had to do this, it jarred me from the story and pulled me out of the experience.

I'm not sure what justification authors are using to ignore quotation marks. Do they feel that somehow the work is more visceral without them? Maybe they think that it lends a more "childish" style when dealing with the perspectives of children. Like I say, I don't know. In my opinion, the disadvantages that come with not using quotation marks outweigh the benefits. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE, contemporary authors of the world, keep using quotation marks. Reading books without them is distracting and subtracts from your narrative. It's easy for you to distinguish who is speaking and action from dialogue because the book is your baby. Readers don't necessarily know, especially on first reading.

So, that's that. Like The Road and Angela's Ashes, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is superb despite the occasional mixup caused by the lack of quotation marks. I blazed through it with relish and satisfaction. Enjoy.
4 1/2 sinister trips to the canefield out of 5