When I was purging our home in Kansas of extra books and carting them to the Dusty Bookshelf to find new owners, I traded them in for both cash and credit. Cash is always good. Credit meant that I had to bring home new books! (Sort of defeats the purpose of purging, but new books are so fun!!) In addition to a nice paperback set of Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials trilogy for the girls when they’re a bit older, I got a few titles for The Librarian and me. I didn’t exactly pore over the shelves at the store; I just grabbed several books that were highly visible on displays and caught my fancy. I like used book stores for that kind of perusal. A new book store has displays that are dictated by the publishing market and its categories and by standard sales models for trade books. “Historical fiction” here and “Biographies” here and “Best Sellers” here. A used book store, even when it’s arranged by genre, is an ever-changing, eclectic hodgepodge of books old and new and, while I might not find titles piling up in my IndieBound “to-read” list, there is always something interesting right there in front of you.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao leapt into my hands. I gave it first to Dale, since I still have a pile of books from the MLA waiting to get read. He was flying back and forth between Canada and Kansas and had plenty of reading time. His verdict: took him a while to get into it and then “wow!” Since I find him to be a rather demanding fiction reader, this was high praise. After reading it myself, I feel completely under-equipped to write a review of it. Reading it was like reading a Bildungsroman, a family tragedy, and a history text all rolled into one. The layering of Oscar’s family story over the history of the Dominican Republic in the twentieth century was heartbreaking and fascinating and totally new to me. I learned that what I know about the Dominican can be put in a mental thimble, and it really cast a light on the general ignorance of this average American regarding the politics of our regional neighbors and how this affects American communities, too.
Oscar’s story is an immigrant story; his life is intimately connected to both the Dominican and the New York/New Jersey communities to which his family immigrated. His life between these two worlds is a difficult one–he doesn’t fit in either place. He lives in the Dominican communities in New Jersey, without being one of the (sex-crazed, cool, vaguely criminal) Dominican guys. In some ways he is more at home in the DR but that, too, is an odd fit for him. He’s a chubby kid, obsessed with comic books and fantasy novels, and lives in a world of his own making inside his head. He writes stories, fantastical stories with hero-save-the-day plot lines, and imagines himself inside them. We, the reader, don’t know what’s in those stories, only the vaguest notions of how obsessive he is about them, and the fact that they are decidedly genre fiction of a particular sort.
As Oscar grows up, he loses some of the weight, loses some of his connection to genre fiction, and tries to find himself in the DR. His family saga, a curse (supposedly) that follows his family, whether they are in the Dominican or in New Jersey, fascinates him and he travels to his family’s home in the DR to try and discover what it is–to discover himself. I’m not sure if this search is ultimately successful. As a reader, I’m left with the feeling that the curse Oscar is researching is the particular Latin American violence that formed each generation of his family, regardless of where they lived. The violence that forced them to flee the DR and the consequences that call them back.
But the plot is almost secondary to the reading experience of the novel. Diaz’s prose is so forceful, it sweeps you along in a torrent of anger and frustration and this compulsion to tell his story to an ignorant reading audience. The footnotes, where our author–or is it our narrator, Yunior?–gives us the background information on the politics and violence of the Dominican Republic in the twentieth century, and the USA’s role in abetting that, are just as important as Oscar’s story. Indeed, they form the context for understanding Oscar’s own search for a narrative that houses him.
It’s a humbling book, both because of the ignorance it exposes and because of its powerful prose. Totally worth a trip to the library or used book store of your choice.