(Read this book and avoid spoilers at all cost)
[I’m doing a micro-thesis project for an Intro to Grad Studies course. Still uncertain about what the whole rhet/comp thing really involves, I figured I’d do something about Oscar Wao and the role of ‘genres’ in it. I had already read it before and loved it immensely. Therefore these are my impressions of my second read-through still love it since I could not conceivably squeeze in another novel in a week where I had to grade papers..]
I first found Oscar Wao in my senior year at the University of Houston. At that point, I had had just about enough of reading dead white men. Having read a selection from Drown in class earlier that semester and enjoyed it, I tracked down a copy of Wao at Half-Price Books ingested it like scripture. My love of the book is of such intensity that when Díaz visited Houston and I asked him during his Q&A about MFA programs, his response changed my life and resulted in me dedicating myself to ‘creative writing’ anew outside of the academy.
Oscar Wao is the story of Oscar de León, an immigrant kid from the Dominican Republic (DR) who can’t seem to catch a break thanks to his weight and love of the genres, or possibly because of a fuku placed on Oscar’s family by DR’s Sauron, Trujillo. More than just Oscar’s story though, Wao is about the Dominican Republic’s time under and following Trujillo’s rule and the families that were driven out of the DR and cast into the trafficky rages of Nueba Yol.
When trying to figure out what it is about this story that pushes me to hyperbole whenever it comes up in conversation, I keep returning to Díaz masterful ability to simultaneously portray DR and its inhabitants as both beautiful and insane. He avoids easy sentimentality and is critical of the stereotypes surrounding minority American culture, even the good ones, as in when Oscar sister, Lola, extols “We colored folks talk plenty of shit about loving our children but we really don’t. She exhaled. We don’t, we don’t, we don’t” (35).
Díaz gets a lot of flack for being a misogynist because of Yunior, the narrator of this and his two short story collections, but even though I can recognize their issue with Yunior’s womanizing, objectifying and cheating ways both Yunior and Díaz don’t ultimately celebrate the aspects of Caribbean culture that support such thinking. It’s also difficult to view Díaz in such negative light when you consider that even though Oscar is the only character who makes it into the book’s title, his family is rife with strong women from his abuela La Inca to his mother Beli and sister Lola. And although all three are flawed, Díaz never goes for the easy cliché even in instances that lend themselves to novella level melodrama such as when Beli has Lola check her breast a lump and the family’s lives are utterly changed.
Course, as Yunior often reminds us, this book is about Oscar and ultimately how he reconciles the parts of himself (the Nueba Yol fantasy loving nerd and his DR roots). Throughout the book I rarely feel much pity for Oscar, the title a brilliant rhetorical move when the end arrives and we’re left uncertain whether Yunior was only fucking with us with the Wondrous bit. Hopefully a 3rd reading a few years from now will clear that up.
Read this book if you love the genres, and paid for it with heaping embarrassment in school. Read if you like a good story, and you don’t mind being told fuk u once in a while.