Book Report: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Published February 5, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

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This was my choice for #4:  “Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative.”

oscar-wao

Like last time, I feel like I didn’t get a very accurate picture of what the book was really going to be like from reading the blurb on Goodreads.  But — unlike last time — I don’t feel at all conflicted about it, or wonder if I’d have been better off reading a different book that would have fulfilled the challenge.

Before even hitting the main body of the novel, I was already being educated by it, which is sort of humiliating, in that as a history graduate student, I find it shameful that there’s so much history I’m still utterly ignorant of.  (On the other hand, I have always had a tendency to avoid 20th century history like the plague, because by the time you hit the 20th century, human beings are altogether too efficient at being horrible and cruel to each other.  (In the third Crusade, it took days for Richard I to have thousands of prisoners slaughtered while he watched (remember, in the Middle Ages, “Lionheart” was an insult referring to cruelty, not a compliment referring to bravery), unlike in the 20th century onwards, where thousands (or millions) can be killed with the press of a single button.)  So, until I read this book, the majority of my knowledge of the Dominican Republic dated to the time when it was still called Hispaniola.  If I had ever learned about Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina and his lengthy reign of terror, I’d forgotten about it.  Most of the book takes place after Trujillo’s assassination, but there are a number of chapters describing the lives of our hero’s (and yes, I’ll get to him in a minute) mother and grandparents on the island, and one passage in particular in talking about his grandfather, Abelard, really struck me:

As a general practice Abelard tried his best not to think about El Jefe at all, followed sort of the Tao of Dictator Avoidance,

It struck me painfully, because Abelard’s head-in-the-sand way of avoiding trouble felt all too familiar.  I don’t want to be like that.

All right, so, on to talking about the main story of the novel, the life of Oscar de León, overweight, shy, and interested in fantasy, science-fiction, comic books and (tabletop) role-playing games.  One of the footnotes (yes, this novel has footnotes) early on sums up Oscar’s youth beautifully:

You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like?  Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto.  Mamma Mia!  Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.

As the book follows Oscar through his miserable life, I kept hoping that (despite everything the narrator said about his tragic fate and lonely life, et cetera) that things were going to turn around for him, that he’d find happiness and avoid the curse on his family.

He knew what he was turning into.  He was turning into the worst kind of human on the planet:  an old bitter dork.  Saw himself at the Game Room, picking through the miniatures for the rest of his life.  He didn’t want this future but he couldn’t see how it could be avoided, couldn’t figure his way out of it.

I think that passage (which is from relatively late in the book, actually) really showed me why I was rooting so hard for poor Oscar:  despite being a white woman, I saw a lot of myself in him.  (Though I never got into tabletop gaming.  In large part because that would have required having people to play the games with.)  But this passage also helped me realize how I’m different from him (aside from the aforementioned ethnic and gender situations), in that although I spent years fearing that same basic ending to my life story, the “sad, lonely git” ending, I’ve reached a kind of zen in that regard:  I’d rather be myself and be alone than try to force myself to be someone and be miserable just to have a little company.  (Still might be a “sad, lonely git” ending as far as everyone else is concerned, but if I’m not feeling lonely, then it’s a very different issue.)

Everything about this book felt very genuine, from Oscar’s despair at the ‘cancellation’ of Doctor Who in the early ’90s (when it had actually been off the air for years in England, but the American broadcasts were just that far behind) and the other developing trends in geek culture to the feeling of what the Dominican Republic was like at various times across the twentieth century.  And that’s to say nothing of what the characters were going through in their personal lives, which again felt very genuine, if sometimes a bit more extreme than anything I’m used to.  I want to quote one more passage, this time just because it felt so very true.  It’s from the perspective of Oscar’s older sister in the 1980s (when she was in her late teens):

My plan was that we would go to Dublin.  I had met a bunch of Irish guys on the boardwalk and they had sold me on their country.  I would become a backup singer for U2, and both Bono and the drummer would fall in love with me, and Oscar could become the Dominican James Joyce.  I really believed it would happen too.

Like I said, very true to teenage girls in the 1980s.  (I wonder if teenagers now still have this kind of fantasy, or if they skip right to writing self-insert fanfiction about it without bothering imagining that it might really happen?)

The narrative style in this novel is unlike what I’m used to.  Most of it is a…I guess you’d call it a third person, but rather than a mysterious, anonymous or omniscient narrator, it’s in a very distinct character voice, in the form of someone who knew Oscar, but was not present for large parts of the story.  This is intercut with a few chapters in the first person of Oscar’s sister.  All that’s not so odd, to me, as some of the standard conventions of punctuation that the author discards.  Far fewer commas than I’m used to, and for some reason there are no quotation marks around dialog, which sometimes makes things a bit confusing.  But it’s pretty rare that it gets confusing, actually.  (Much more confusing is all the Spanish that’s thrown into the text without translation.  And most of the time I don’t read with an Internet connection handy, so I couldn’t look it up.  But most of the time the basic gist of it was evident from context.)

I don’t know if this book is officially considered “literature” rather than merely a novel (it’s probably too recent to be sure one way or the other) but it’s certainly close to being “literature,” even if it’s not generally regarded as such.  (Which is probably, now that I think of it, why they had it in my university’s library…)  That makes it a nice match with the previous book I read, all the more so since the author of the previous book was mentioned a couple of times in this one.  (Not in the kindest of light, though; seems like he had written a book set in the time of Trujillo, and had painted one of the chief accomplices in terms more gentle than he deserved.)  That would have made for the perfect line of succession to my planned next book, #3 “Read a book about books,” which was going to be another one I got from the library, which is about how Oscar Wilde’s works were shaped by the books he had read.  I’m sure it’s a fascinating read, and I plan on leaving it on my “to read list” even after I return it to the library, but after two in a row, I need something light and fluffy.  (And given how Oscar Wilde’s life ended up, I don’t think any book about him would manage to stay light and cheerful.)  Fortunately, I happened across something at the used book store that actually is light and fluffy (maybe too much so), and is still a book about books, so I’ve already started reading that one.  It’s short, so I’ll probably have a post up about it by Tuesday.  (Tomorrow, of course, is already spoken for in the form of Missing Letter Mondays.  Which I think is probably going to be a re-post this week…)

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