Review no 176. Book 15 of my 20 books of summer 21
AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a work of fiction steeped in fact, specifically the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujilo, who ruled over the Dominican Republic with an iron first until his assassination in 1961.
In large part, though, this is a tragicomic family saga, set in the late 20th century and focused around the titular Oscar (a grossly overweight sci-fi nerd who lives in New Jersey, writes in Elvish and dreams both of becoming the ‘Dominican Tolkein’ and of finally getting laid). Other principal characters include Oscar’s beautiful, feisty sister Lola, his bitter, cancer-stricken Dominican mother – and his long-deceased grandfather, whose well-intentioned, even honourable, actions in the Dominican Republic in the 1940s had a terrible impact on his family for generations to come.
Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everybody’s always going on about – he wasn’t no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock.
And except for one period early in his life, dude never had much luck with the females (how very un-Dominican of him).
He was seven then.
The name Oscar Wao is a misnomer coined after Yunior, Lola’s sometime boyfriend and Oscar’s sometime friend (and an incontinent shagger), tells him he looks just like “that fat homo Oscar Wilde” – an insult that is seized upon by his contemporaries (“Melvyn said Oscar Wao, quien es Oscar Wao, and that was it, all of us started calling him that”).
The story, expanded from a shorter piece published in the New Yorker in 2000, shifts constantly, weaving backwards and forwards in time, with multiple perspectives. The text is sprinkled liberally with extensive, often irreverent, seemingly authoritative footnotes, providing a breezy and sometimes – as the author is eager to point out – outright inaccurate primer on the often bloody political history of the Dominican Republic.
We don’t find out the main narrator’s name until over halfway through the book, while there are elements of magical realism, including Oscar’s lucid dreams, which feature a mystical and ridiculous spirit animal – a golden mongoose – and a possible family curse. Sometimes the text veers into Spanish slang, or perhaps more accurately Dominican, without translation, but if you don’t know Spanish you can skip those bits, or certainly guess the gist. Or go on Google Translate if you’re really curious.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an ambitious, playful novel about the long shadow of history, and life, love and loss among an immigrant community. A favourite of many critics, I quite liked it, but my assessment of whether I love a book boils down to whether I want to buy a copy/keep my copy to reread later. On those criteria this book doesn’t qualify as a favourite and is off to the charity shop.