About 500 words on: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

I’ve been, recently, looking for contemporary novels that switch between multiple perspectives – Junot Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was mentioned as a suggestion to someone else asking for a list of novels like that somewhere on the web1. I approached the book expecting that; yet – Diaz doesn’t really fully immerse himself in the subjective voice of each of the characters. Instead there’s a first person narrator that constantly flickers in and out, but acts as a filter; the characters inner voices aren’t really explored in depth. Instead Diaz presents the narrator’s interpretation of what their voice might be like.

Because I was searching for and expected something else this disappointed me at first, but technically Diaz achieves here – the narrator’s identity and relation to the other characters only is really clearly spelled out somewhere around page 250 (of 337 in my edition) and yet Diaz builds up to that throughout, allows the narrator to interject and comment, establishing an identity. Once it is clear who is actually speaking that first-person narrator in turn comes much more to the forefront – the last few chapters switch completely to the character’s own thoughts. The narrator’s in text explanatory footnotes on the political situation in the Dominican Republic, likewise, work well; Diaz doesn’t have to enter the text and provide context, as the author; instead these explanations add to the narration, rather than forcing me to step away from it.

On the other hand I just wanted more depth from the characters and the story. There isn’t enough about the politics of the Dominican Republic, really, that I’d feel I could recommend it to someone interested in that2; there’s not enough to the nerd aspect3 that is Oscar Wao’s (clichéd) world to give any insight to someone mostly unfamiliar; there’s literary references and a literary quality to the writing, but not enough, I think, that the book would inspire a very narrowly sci-fi/fantasy focused reader, like Oscar Wao himself, to explore literary fiction more. It is not a bad book; it was a pleasant enough journey, but I can’t really think of anyone I’d actively want to lend it to: It’s not one you absolutely must read.

Favourite sentence: The last (two), countering Conrad4: “The beauty! The beauty!”

I am not really sure whether I’ll make this a regular feature5 and might wake up tomorrow and drop it again. I am not overly opinionated on writing, don’t really want this to be about being a critic6. I much prefer recommending specific books to specific readers instead of giving generic tips or “trashing” a novel. It’s not meant to be a review, but more about putting down some brief initial thoughts. I’ll experiment for the next few books I read – but really would like feedback on whether this actually interests anyone out there. Usually my own preference is to not know what I a book (or film, or art installation) is like before I experience it, so this also doesn’t contain a summary either. It’s easy enough to check Wikipedia for a synopsis if you want one :).

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      1. It was just a google search, back then, so I really have no idea where I spotted that. The other recommendation was Jodi Picault’s My Sister’s Keeper but that doesn’t really teach me anything new and useful on that end, either. []
      2. But there may be more to the book than I noticed; it may read completely different to someone familiar with the countries political history. []
      3. Is it bad I know what most of the terminology refers to? It’s all not really super obscure, but still … []
      4. I am happy someone actually did that! []
      5. As if there’s ever been anything like that on here! []
      6. Even though it turned out more like that – rather than personal reflections on technique :) []