I have this one quirky uncle, a Trivial Pursuit kind of guy. When I was a kid he''d make me nervous by endlessly quizzing me on state capitals, our presidents, the order of the planets, or whatever he felt like I should know. He keeps up to date with current events, watches all of the movies up for Best Picture before the Oscars air, and by the end of April has already read the Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. He''s got them all neatly lined up in perfect chronological order in a beautiful glass bookcase. And no, he''s not a librarian. At any rate, I was surprised when he complained about the 2008 winner, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, as he''s usually a sucker for any book that makes it on those end-of-year best-of lists. "Too much Spanish, too much pop culture and way too many footnotes." "Hmm", I thought. "I''ll give it a try."
Like my uncle, this book certainly has its quirks. The things that he hated, though, are the very things that made me love it. They add color and spice, a little fun and funkiness to a sort of tragic story. Because, really, this story is about love and loss; the way we carry on, even through misery and misfortune.
Oscar is fat and clueless, dripping with awkward geekiness. ''''Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber," so says the narrator. It''s an apt comparison, as Oscar is obsessed with all things science fiction. He dreams and toils and sweats over becoming the next J.R.R. Tolkien (in between falling in love with every girl he sees). This is not just a book about a sad sap from New Jersey, though. Díaz has constructed a loud and powerful history of a single cursed family and their homeland, the Dominican Republic. The footnotes fill us in on the island’s history, especially under the ruthless tyranny of Rafael Trujillo. They aren''t intrusive to the story, not like Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, where you have to flip back and forth so many times you develop carpal-tunnel syndrome.
And, yes, like some of my favorite Beck songs (Mano Blancos roll with crowbars / singing rancheras on cheap guitars / ¿Qué onda guero?), Spanish and Spanish slang is sprinkled throughout the book. This was especially fun for me, because my Peruvian mom is constantly mixing her English and Spanish (‘Don’t you dare open the door to your friends, I’m only wearing mi bata’). I thought my little insider knowledge more than made up for the glut of dorky references that went right over my head (Lord of the Rings, DC Comics, Dune, World of Warcraft). I mean that in the most respectful way. I am an über dork, just not one that''s into fantasy or superheroes. I am, however, on the waiting list for the library''s copy of The Watchmen by Alan Moore cause Díaz made it sound kind of awesome.
So, don’t listen to my uncle! If you like comic books, or are just looking for something engaging to read, give this a try.