I'm playing catch up this week, so today I offer 2 commentaries that are somewhat related. I also encourage you to go over to Savvy Verse &Wit to read my guest review there. Serena's blog has been celebrating small and independent publishers all month, and it has been a fascinating set of interviews, reviews, and other tasty morsels. Do go check it out.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
My friends have lived in Barcelona for almost three years, and in that time, they have achieved a passable fluency, peppering their Castilian Spanish with the regional lisp - grathias - and the ever-present vale (pronounced ball-ay) of the natives. Though my french can get me by, I speak no spanish, and I marvel at my friends' ability to maneuver through this foreign land and language. To not speak the language marks one as an outsider, as a non-participant, an inferior dependent upon the kindness and knowledge of others. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao made me feel a similar outsidedness - I could not speak any of Diaz's languages - neither the urban NY Dominican slang nor the nerd-speak of comic books, anime, and fantasy role-playing games. I was a stranger in Oscar's strange land, and there was no kind friend to help me through.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao tells the story of Oscar through the eyes of his "friend" Junior - sort of. It also provides a good bit of DR history and lore, for which I was appreciative. Oscar is the consummate geek - overweight, awkward, socially inept, grasping, and intelligent. He is also the reason many readers love this book: whether by sympathy or empathy, they grow to care deeply for Oscar. I admit I did not much care for Oscar, but my detachment is due to Diaz's writing rather than any character trait(s) he bestowed upon his hapless hero.
First, Junior's narrative is wildly inconsistent. On one page, he will be all curses and ghetto slang; on the next, he demonstrates a too-polished, writerly tone - almost omniscient narration,but it's still supposed to be Junior. Second, Diaz offers very limited and sporadic narrative sections to Oscar's sister (and his mother? or grandmother? I forget.), which was too widely scattered to achieve a positive effect. Finally, though, I return to the language. I recognize the effort and skill it takes to capture an authentic voice - especially one of slang or dialect. I am not saying Diaz didn't succeed at this task; instead, I must admit to not preferring this kind of "realism" in writing. Let me be clear: I am not talking about the profanity - I can and will read worse and enjoy the overall experience. I'm referring here to the conversational style that flows throughout the book.
My problem with Diaz is that the language he uses to tell Oscar's story - the fragments, the lazy diction, the real-life speech of these characters - is like the train ride we took to Figueres where the elderly gentleman behind me insisted upon smoking (which was prohibited) and hacking and even spitting on the floor of the train repeatedly. It may be "true," but it did not add anything to my experience. My analogy is wearing thin here because in life, it is often the ugly and the broken and the painful that instruct, inform, and even enlighten us most. But for those experiences to have that effect, there has to be some transformative power, something that was - for me - missing in this book.
I left Spain wishing I knew more languages, more about the food and culture and people of that place and so many others. A good book does the same thing: presents a foreignness that creates a desire to know more. But in the case of Diaz's broken words, I did not finish the book wishing I spoke his language; I merely felt excluded and frustrated with a writer who made no effort to help his reader understand the world he was chronicling.
So many others liked this book tremendously, so feel free to disagree wholeheartedly. And if you have reviewed this book (positively or negatively), please comment below, and I'll add a link to your post here.
Since this post is already quite long, I am going to end here and add the companion piece later today.