Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

I’m clearly in the minority here, and a minority at odds with a very high literary consensus at that, so I have to assume there’s something here that I’m failing to register, that it’s me, and not the book. But I really hated it. I rolled my eyes at literally every page and had to force myself to read on.

297673I found the story hollow and mind-numbingly boring, couldn’t care less what happened next or what any of the characters amounted to, I hated the familiar over-exotisation of the foreign, the Other (reminded me strongly of <i>Middlesex</i> which was also thin on story but heavy on the rhapsodising over that mythical exotic race, the Greeks); and to me the famously eclectic, original style was merely showy, original for the sake of it. It’s like Diaz had this thought of mixing old-school nerdiness, street slang, Dominican Spanish and pretentious uber-literary words and references, throwing in some supposedly self-deprecating but actually smug markers of self-awareness, and it sounded awesome in his head but the end result is, to me, a boastful dissonance with no beauty or point to it, a grape stew, as we say in Bulgarian – a hopscotch of discordant ingredients that tastes off. The book sounded off to me the entire time, and not just the awkward and unyielding blend of varying writing styles, but the drawn out metaphors and similes that seemed to painfully stretch their points, and the supremely annoying, forced-dramatic use of one-line paragraphs, exclamation points and exaggerated descriptions of strong emotions that nevertheless failed to elicit any reaction from me.

And another thing. I’ve had it up to here with the casual misogyny in super cool mega literary hyper praised dudes’ books. It’s not cool and I’ve heard it a million times before and at this point I can’t abide it. Every single woman that makes an appearance in this book (except one, who is there to play the role of the witch) is described in dripping detail as a collection of appetising body parts, and all of those women are traffic-stopping hot, naturally, because what is even the point of non-fuckable females? Diaz, for one, seems at a loss for finding one. Women are routinely referred to as the collective „ass“, „culo“ and „toto“ – like they’re a natural resource instead of, you know, people. Even historical women are mentioned, sometimes manipulatively so, merely in terms of their desirability – like the Mirabal sisters who founded a whole resistance movement but the narrator only mentions them as girls Trujillo wanted to fuck but couldn’t so he had them killed. I found that really irritating and frankly, insulting.

I know it’s supposed to be critical, because the narrator is this hypermasculine guy and in the book hypermasculinity only leads to violence and loss (including Oscar’s own desperate pursuit of it), but Oscar is supposed to be the opposite of that negative and he isn’t that great either. He’s obsessed with being in love with women he literally does not know and this is supposed to be an antidote to machismo? He merely sees women as another sort of object. Not to mention he checks all the boxes of the abominable Nice Guy(TM) stereotype – he gets violent when his love interest starts dating someone else, he stalks a woman, following her around and literally endangering her well-being and possibly life against her protests and appeals, and rationalises it by telling himself if she really wanted him to stop, she’d have him killed. Like, what?! And I so appreciate reading yet another account where women’s actual, stated desires are completely dismissed in favour of men’s ridiculous and self-serving interpretations of their behaviour. Not. Oh, and his fantasy about fucking a friend on the sly because she isn’t hot enough „to date openly“ (Oscar is a character described as physically unattractive and bullied for it) was another favourite too. Love these microaggressions in my literature, cause it’s not enough to actually live them in real life.

This supposed criticism of misogyny still revolves around men and how it affects them – all of the feeling, compassion and analytical power is devoted to them. The consequences for women are presented in a disinterested way, like a natural calamity that can’t be avoided. Which incidentally is exactly how misogynists see misogyny. So, a complete failure from where I’m standing.

The idea of likening the dictator Trujillo to a sci-fi or fantasy supervillain with unearthly origins and powers like Sauron sounds interesting, but is lost on the page. It’s suggested in direct terms, in the space of a page (btw the only page in the entire book that aroused any interest in me), and the rest of the time I guess the reader is supposed to make the connection between the descriptions of his all-enveloping evil and the annoying repeated references to LotR, but those two merely coexist in the same book. No literary devices are employed to imply that connection that I could find.

The similarities with <i>Middlesex</i> were obvious to me and very annoying. Both authors exploit their countries of origin for the easily impressed American literary circles who are always ready to believe the most far-fetched and absurd things about non-US cultures, especially the more exotic-sounding ones. One uses a gene that travels down the generational line, the other uses a curse (fuku) that functions the exact same way. One utilises science, the other – magic. Both things decidedly outside the mundane logic of regular life. It seems performing literary magic tricks for the wide-eyed, well-intentioned but no less jingoistic for it American literati really pays off.

By the way this whole fuku/zafa thing, which only gets vaguely interesting literally in the last 5 pages, reminded me strongly of our own superstitions about уроки and the things you do to break them, like knocking on wood, spitting on kids, etc. and I really couldn’t be as awed by it as I was supposed to be. I suspect the problem is I’m not an American for whom anything outside their borders is non-civilisation, a realm of primitive customs and supernatural forces.

I’m sure there was something supreme and subtle about this book that I just couldn’t comprehend and therefore appreciate – perhaps I should have puzzled it out from the cryptic phrases, references and literal blank spaces in lieu of words thrown in the last few pages which I think were supposed to help piece together the possibly alien nature of the fuku hanging on the de Leons and how it could be undone. Well, I failed. Maybe I’d have been better prepared to place the novel had I been well-read in the Latin-American literary tradition. As it is, I’ve only read Isabel Allende from that crowd and I didn’t care for her either. Maybe Latin-American magical realism, with or without hip additions like Jersey slang and nerdy references, just isn’t my cup of tea.


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