Reading Oscar between the lines

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m reading Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Since that post was a few days ago, I’m no longer half-way through the book, I’m a few pages from the end. The book has been an interesting read, and enjoyable to a degree, but it’s not a book I’d put on a personal favorite list.

One of the things I find off-putting about the book is Diaz’s heavy use of Spanish throughout the text. I am not a Spanish speaker so many of these lines are lost on me. I feel excluded from the text because I’m a gringo Americano and I’m unfamiliar with the phrases and cultural references used. Considering how many footnotes are in this book (I think David Foster Wallace has started a posthumous trend – footnotes in fiction) it’s surprising that Diaz doesn’t offer up translations of these lines there. I can only assume he was fine if readers “get it or not” but that’s a tough line to draw on your reader, isn’t it? If the reader is missing some percentage of the references, how does that affect the overall experience of reading the book? Is Diaz saying it doesn’t matter?

Secondarily, there are also references to science fiction and fantasy role playing games along with numerous references to New Jersey. In both of these areas I’m familar with the subjects (I went to Rutgers University in the late 80’s, I played Dungeons and Dragons as a kid, I spent my time watching Star Trek, blah blah) so I got a lot of the references…still, not all of them. But I don’t think the sci fi / fantasy references added much to the book. As a reader, I get that Diaz wants to show us Oscar is a nerd, while mixing a strange set of influences: going to college at Rutgers New Brunswick, science fiction, Dominican culture and Spanish phrases.

Regardless of whether or not I think the book is fully successful as a novel, the way Diaz wrote the book is a sly between the lines kind of experience. If you come to the book with all of the references he provides, you’ll get the full experience he wrote about. If you know only some, or perhaps even none of the references, your reading will be a somewhat more superficial understanding of the content covered in the book.

If you’ve read the book, I’d like to read comments you have about the experience. Most specifically, what did you think about the non-linear narrative aspect of the book? What did you think about the layers of references, and ultimately did the book stack up for you as a worthwhile read?

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2 Responses

  1. I read this book a couple of years ago for book club. From what I remember, most of us liked the book. I wasn’t nuts about it. We did feel left out, in a way, because none of us spoke or read Spanish. So I agree with you on that. I thought it was unique the way the author narrated the story–by creating this Yunior, but I also found that confusing. I think he could have accomplished the same thing without naming the narrator and creating a “person” that the reader never really meets. (At least, that’s what I remember). I’m interested to see what you think of the ending!

    • Strangely I felt the ending was anti-climactic because right in the title we know the main character is going to die. Also the author doubles back because the character gets killed, and then the author adds that the virginal main character (spoiler alert!) did have sex with the prostitute he fell in love with before he died. I wasn’t a big fan of telling the whole story and then tacking on, after the main character’s death, ‘oh yeah, and he did wind up getting laid after all…’

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