OK, so I’ll just say it: I wasn’t that impressed. People seem to love this book (it won the Pulitzer, among other accolades), so I’ve been asking myself why I didn’t. Maybe it’s just that it’s the first fiction I’ve read since finishing In Search of Lost Time. That is such an amazing book that maybe any book coming right after it is at an automatic disadvantage. In Search of Lost Time is beautifully written, addresses almost every facet of human life, and has characters so well-developed you probably know them better than you know your own friends. Anything else is bound to be a disappointment.
But I don’t think that’s the only reason that I didn’t love Oscar Wao. I know people love the “voice” of the narrator, and at times I really enjoyed it and of course it fit. The book is made to sound as if the narrator, a Dominican-American, is talking to you and telling you the story. There’s a lot of Spanish sprinkled in and it’s made to sound the way most people talk: not always in complete sentences. But sometimes I just wanted proper English! Yes, I know, I’m a hater. More importantly, though, there’s little to no poetry in the telling of this story. Again, not surprising since most people don’t talk that way. But when I read a serious book I want poetry. I want beauty. I want to be swept off my feet. None of that here.
Diaz uses what seems to be an increasingly common approach in modern lit: he bounces back and forth telling the stories of multiple generations of one family. I’ve seen that work wonderfully in some books (Behind the Scenes at the Museum is the first that comes to mind). But there just seemed to be something missing here. It didn’t quite all come together. Maybe he tried to do too much in not enough space. Many of the older generations seemed under-developed. It was like he was telling their story just for the sake of having that “multi-generational” sense to the book. I would have preferred one story satisfactorily developed. Even the main story, Oscar’s story, ended somewhat abruptly. It’s one thing to have an unpredictable denouement, it’s another to have an ending that comes out of nowhere and seems to bear no relation to the rest of the novel. The ending here felt like the latter to me.
Was it satisfying simply as entertainment? More so. The narrator has a good sense of humor. Oscar is a sci-fi/fantasy nerd, and as a very amateur “genre” fan myself I appreciated the frequent references to genre works. The Lord of the Rings makes many appearances – I love The Lord of the Rings, so I thought that was fun. I certainly missed a lot of the more obscure sci-fi/fantasy references, but I still enjoyed the ones I did get.
The most interesting aspect of this book to me was the crash course on Dominican history. Sadly, I knew almost nothing about the 20th century happenings in this island nation. Diaz describes the resident dictator, Trujillo, as one of the most brutal in recent history and Wikipedia supports this, describing his reign as featuring “absolute repression and the copious use of murder, torture, and terrorist methods against the opposition.” At one point Diaz mentions the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic from 1916-1924. He then sarcastically notes, don’t worry, in another generation your children won’t know about the U.S. occupation of Iraq. I’m not sure how true that is, but I did feel foolish for not knowing about a nearly 10-year occupation by the U.S. Oh well, read and learn. And in terms of learning about Dominican history, this book is instructive.
Reading back over this post I feel like I’ve been mostly critical. I did somewhat enjoy the book, but I just can’t seem to find much positive to say. Can any other readers help me out here? What am I missing?