Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - by Junot Díaz

To wrap up 2016 I re-visited an old favorite. I first read this about 10 years ago when I assigned it to students in my First Year Seminar. I had not read it since, although I did read Díaz's two other books Drown, and This is How You Lose Her. And I did have the chance to meet the author in the meantime - in fact I got to introduce him when he spoke at our campus in 2008! There is movement afoot to bring him back to Bridgewater so it seemed like a good time to re-read this novel.

Oscar de Leon (aka Oscar Wao) is a Domincan living in New Jersey He is also a big nerd. Fat and homely he does not fit in with the rest of the kids in his neighborhood, and not surprisingly, does not do so well with women. He does, however, love to read and spends a lot of time at the library.
Oscar had always been a young nerd - the kind of kid who read Tom Swift, who loved comic books and watched Ultraman - but by high school his commitment to the Genres had become absolute. Back when the rest of us were learning to play wallball and pitch quarters and drive our older brothers' cars and sneak dead soldiers from under our parents' eyes, he was gorging himself on a steady stream of Lovecraft, Wells, Burroughs, Howard, Alexander Herbert, Asimov, Bova, and Heinlein, and even the Old Ones who were already beginning to fade...(It was his good fortune that the libraries of Paterson were so underfunded that they still kept a lot of the previous generation's nerdery in circulation.)
 This may be the first time I've seen a lack of library resources referred to as a stroke of luck.

The narrator, Yunior, takes on Oscar as a bit of a project as a favor to Oscar's sister (Lola). They are college roommates and Yunior attempts to get Oscar to diet and exercise, and to act like more of a Domincano. Yunior mentions using the library a few times himself - once because he had nothing better to do, and once to hit on another student at his college library.

 The author makes heavy use of footnotes, which often provide historical context and are an important part of the story. They are not to be ignored and are written in the same engaging style as the rest of the book. I knew better than to skip them, and was rewarded with not only a better understanding of the story, but also it was where we learn that Lola ("a reader too") always supported her brother's sci-fi mania by "bringing him books from her own school, which had a better library."

The action in this book alternates between New Jersey and the Dominican Republic. There is a fair amount of Spanish language woven into the dialogue. Those who have heard or used Spanglish will recognize the natural use of the language in this work.

It was serendipitous that a friend posted this video on her Facebook page just as I was finishing this work. It explains why the Spanish words and phrases used in the novel are not italicized, but simply embedded into the rest of the text.

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