Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Book Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Ordinarily this book would look too much like typical fiction for me to read it, because it's the story of a family from the Dominican Republic suffering under the Trujillo dictatorship of the mid-20th century. Well, not only is it supposed to be a particularly well-written example of the genre, but the title character, Oscar Wao, is actually a Dominican fantasy nerd who reads Tolkien and Asimov and everything inbetween. So, being a fantasy nerd myself, I wanted to see how the author did in writing a character like that realistically.

The answer is that Diaz nailed it. His portrait of Oscar Wao is so precise that even though a Dominican fantary nerd may never have existed on the earth, he gets the kind of details that are so accurate that they hurt. Reminds me of parts of high school that have been long since forgotten. Now, Oscar is more of a fantasy nerd than anybody else I know, taken to extreme in his focus, and that exclusion of other aspects to his life is about the only part of his characterization I can find fault with. What music does he listen to? What god does he believe in? You find out some of that through his actions, but I would have liked to know more.

This is a very well-written book, and it's only partially about Oscar. His mom and sister and sister's boyfriend get equal billing and narrative viewpoint passages. The book jumps back and forth in time and employs the Lost storytelling technique of starting in one time and then jumping back and forth to show us why that person is such a jerk, or ran away from home, or whatever. Actually, Lost stole that technique from comic books, so it's particularly appropriate for this kind of book.

The unmitigated Sauron-like evil of the Trujillo regime becomes slowly apparent as the book progresses. After reading about what it was like to live under that dictator, I was reminded of Jared Diamond's book Collapse, where he argues that for all its faults, the Trujillo regime was actually pretty good on environmental protection. For instance, you can see the Haiti-Dominican border from the air, because on the Haiti side the forests have been cut down straight to the border, while on the Dominican side they are untouched. Diamond recognizes that lauding Trujillo in any way is problematic, but I don't think he knows just how problematic it is. I think he should read this book -- I'd like to know if it would change anything for him.

This is indeed a bloody book, as its cover indicates. It captures the Caribbean character better than any other book I've read, but it certainly takes a bit out of you to read it and live in that world. Be warned.

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