The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (2007): Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao* is one hell of a novel. Junot Diaz may have complex and varied literary skills, but he also has a deep and well-read love of pop culture.
Partially this fluency serves the title character’s interests — Oscar de Leon is an unhappy, overweight geek. Partially this serves to create a synthesis that doesn’t really remind me of anything before it, probably because one doesn’t generally run into Magic Realism that abounds with meaningful allusions and references to Doctor Who, Star Trek, Galactus, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, and Jack Kirby’s Fourth World of warring comic-book gods and demons.
In any case, this is the best new novel I’ve read in years (by ‘new’ I mean something that’s five years old or less when I read it). The eponymous character’s travails are embedded in a story that covers three generations of triumph and woe (well, more woe than triumph), first in the Dominican Republic and then in America and specifically New Jersey, where Oscar’s mother moves in the 1960’s.
You will learn scads about the horrible history of the ‘DR’, especially during the reign of its monstrous dictator Trujillo. You’ll learn about monstrous curses (‘fuku’) and counterspell (‘zafa’). You’ll navigate a text as comfortable with Jack Kirby’s Galactus as it is with social satire, drama, and tragedy. Frankly, you may need an annotated edition, though Diaz ensures that his references are understandable to the uninformed (a riff on the young Oscar’s love of Doc Savage novels is especially funny).
And you’ll get footnotes. Tons and tons and tons of footnotes. Shifts in narrative POV, though the book as a whole is ostensibly written by one of Oscar’s friends. Strong female characters drawn with care and affection. Horrific tortures and reversals and acts of cruelty. Love that erases boundaries and refuses to quit.
And Oscar, sad and troubled, hopeful and geeky, working on his endless fantasy/science-fiction tetralogy while failing again and again at love. There are mythic figures (a faceless man and an occasionally helpful mongoose). And a weight of Dominican Republic history, moving, self-lacerating, horrifying and often bleakly funny. This is a great and startling book. Highest recommendation.
* ‘Wao’ means ‘who.’