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Is it Fate, or is it Family?

October 16, 2009

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Junot Diaz

Successful authors, it seems to me, figure out what they know and what they’re good at–and then they keep writing it. Over and over again. It’s the same story every time, but you keep coming back to it because they’re so good at this one story. Milan Kundera has one story (post-communist Czech couples have love affairs and try to piece together their lives), Jhumpa Lahiri has one story (Indian immigrants feel misunderstood), even my beloved Virginia Woolf has one story (Can people, isolated as they are, ever find unity?). Junot Diaz has his one story, too: Tortured family sagas of Dominican immigrants.

But he’s great at it. He writes with charm and humor and you keep coming back, even though you’ve read it all before. I was enchanted by Diaz after reading Drown, his celebrated collection of short stories; he blew me away. But when I started The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I began to get the uncanny sense that I’d met these people before.

Even if you haven’t read Drown, you have at least met Oscar before. He was that socially inept, fat kid who lurked in the hallways of our high schools and sat alone at a table in our American History class at our universities. He always ate alone. He was always reading books with galaxies on the covers and playing games on his computer. We gravitate to Oscar and his plight because we recognize it. Diaz’s craftiness lies in his ability to lure you to care about Oscar, and hope desperately for his lot to improve. But it doesn’t. Diaz was never one for sugar-coating reality.

I wasn’t initially sure what to make of the device of footnotes throughout the novel. I’ll admit I expected to be annoyed by them, but they were often the most amusing paragraphs in the book, and it’s Diaz’s way of giving you the background of Dominican history that he wants you to have without being pedantic.

Oddly enough, Drown felt more whole to me than this novel. But it did, after all, win the Pulitzer Prize. And I don’t regret reading it; meeting the troubled Wao family, harking from a long line of family unluckiness (or was it Trujillo’s curse?), worth it.

READ IF: You love a good, tortured family saga about immigrants in America.

A personal note: Finally revived this blog. I am going to try to post every Friday, and perhaps give it broader focus on media happenings, as well as what I’ve been learning in my time at UNC Press.

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