November 23rd, 2008

Live fast

The Not That Brief, Not That Wondrous Book of Junot Díaz

I waited for a month or so to get my hands on The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. It's the latest Pulitzer Prize winner, and everyone's reading it. There were forty holds on it at the library when I gave it a click. I was very excited.

I loved all the geeky references, from Akira to The Stand, from Doctor Who to Dungeons and Dragons, from The Lord of the Rings to Perdido Street Station. I loved the use of section headers. I loved some sentences. I loved the sense that I was being told a story. I loved that it was a non-linear narrative told from multiple perspectives. I loved that the first epigraph and the final footnote are lines from Fantastic Four.

But that is where my love ends.

I really wanted to like this book. It took the dude over a decade to write, and it's obviously very personal, and I should be all about multiculturalism, but I just could not get into the damn thing. I studied Spanish in high school and college, so I was somewhat ahead of the curve, but a significant percentage of the words in this book are untranslated, unexplained, unitalicized Spanish/Spanglish. There were some important moments that I didn't fully grasp because I was too lazy to stick stuff into Babelfish. On the one hand, I appreciated what Díaz was doing by having his Spanish casually infiltrate his English without any clear parameters. On the other hand, shut up; Jhumpa Lahiri was able to integrate another language and culture into her writing without alienating the reader. I can't even find the Dominican Republic on a map, so I know a lot more about it now than I did beforehand, but having zero knowledge of the history and culture of the country put me at a disadvantage, even though there were many footnotes explaining who the historical figures were. Except, given the style and tone of the novel, I wasn't sure how historically accurate they were. I know it's unfair to judge the book on my ignorance, but I'm just saying: this is the reading experience. I had pretty much zero knowledge of the historical period of India depicted in Midnight's Children as well, but Rushdie was far more successful in pulling me into the story and using the historical narrative to enhance his fictional narrative and vice-versa. Díaz tries to trick you into learning history while reading his book too, but all the footnotes make you feel like you're just reading a textbook written by some guy in a college history class.

The writing style is...I don't even know, you guys. I didn't know you were allowed to write like that and win a Pulitzer. He writes like I do in my LJ posts sometimes, leaving in the "like"s and "dude"s and "for fuck's sake"s and slipping in untranslated, unexplained geeky references. The language is very freewheeling and casual, and, I don't know, I really thought I would like it, but I guess it started to grate on me. It began to feel artificial and contrived, like it was too cool for school. Look at me, I'm so hip, I can say whatever I want and people will think I'm awesome because I'm writing about a culture they don't know about, oh buuuuurn. There were moments; like I said, I loved some sentences. There's one sentence near the end of the book that goes on for almost three pages (I was halfway through the second page before I realized I hadn't hit a period yet). But he doesn't use quotation marks for dialogue. Oh my God. I'm sorry, dude, but you only get to do that if you're Faulkner. It's fucking confusing otherwise.

All of that wouldn't matter if I really cared about the characters, but I...didn't. Oscar is a pathetic, overweight nerdboy whose main goal in life appears to be to get some ass. Okay, maybe I'm being too hard on him. He's looking for love, like any boy. And he has dreams of being the Dominican Tolkien. Sure, I sympathized with him in the early part of the book, but after that, his story is told almost exclusively through other people, and I didn't really connect with him anymore. And you know what? HIS LIFE IS NOT THAT WONDROUS. I'm just saying. Yunior, our narrator, seems like kind of a twat. Hell, the character I probably cared most about was Lola, Oscar's sister. I think her sections, told in first-person, were my favorite parts of the book. They were genuinely emotional; I could really understand her and what she was feeling. I also liked the chapter about Oscar's mom.

The book starts out promisingly enough, describing the fukú, a Curse passed down through generations that is supposedly responsible for all the tragedy that befalls Oscar's family. The Curse is mentioned throughout the book to tie together the multigenerational story, but it doesn't anything. It's added flavor, a little dash of magical realism to spice up the narrative. The problem is, the narrative totally needs spicing up. Notice how most of my loves up there are vague and conceptual. I liked the concepts but was not so much a fan of the execution.

(Special note, before I close: If you read the book, be aware that Junot Díaz TOTALLY SPOILS WATCHMEN. It's in the last few pages, and he's just quoting something from the last issue for effect, so you can avoid it if you just turn the page once you get the Watchmen part. But, man, I would have been so pissed if I hadn't already read it (twice). Just like I'm still bitter toward Peanuts for spoiling Citizen Kane for me.)

This is just me, of course. Obviously, many people—including magazines, newspapers, and the Pulitzer board—would disagree with me. I guess you either connect with the language and characters or you don't. In any case, the book does give me hope that one day, I can weave random references to Veronica Mars into my New York Times bestseller.