Someone told me about eighteen months ago that I should be careful. That when people pass the mid-point of their twenties it becomes harder for them to find any cultural products truly enervating. That it becomes harder to love them. That no one’s favourite book or film or piece of music or painting was first encountered after their twenty-fifth birthday. I scoffed at this, then, but was thinking about it as I read Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
It had been spoken of to me as a life-changing, a literature-changing, read. But, though I enjoyed it, I didn’t feel altered by it. And then I stopped to think back through the books I’ve read over the last few years to try and figure out which I felt to be the most significant. And the resounding answer was David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which I read just before my last birthday, my twenty-fifth. That changed me. But Díaz, alas, did not.
On paper, though, I should have loved this book. Gently experimental in chronology, full of sex and violence and insightful glimpses into cultures I know nothing about, the smug satisfaction of understanding the occasional bits of Spanish, the articulately terse discussions of serious politics, the pop culture references sandwiched between highfaluting historical discussion of imperialism and its effects… The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an intelligent, funny, serious and good book. I can’t fault it as an idea, and perhaps my slight sense of disaffection I got coming out of it was more due to my very high expectations.
But no, I don’t think that’s it… There is a… and I’m wary to use this word, but it’s the word I want, there is a SMUGNESS to the whole endeavour that I found a little off-putting. The kind of thing I don’t like in James Joyce, some Will Self, the thing that initially put me off Foster Wallace (and has put me off pretty much everything else of his I’ve read bar Infinite Jest)… Junot Díaz knows what he’s doing, he knows why he is dropping slang alongside quasi-syllabic discussions of cultural theory… he knows why Tolkien is being mentioned in the same breath as murderous dictators, he knows why-
I could go on. What I don’t like in some so-called “intelligent fiction”, literary fiction, is this constant sense of feeling that one must remember the intelligence of the writer. Maybe, though, maybe this is just my own prejudice, as certainly none of the many, many people who recommended this book to me commented upon this as a problem.
Oscar Wao is about movement and sexuality and politics and dictatorships and friendship and love and class and race and literature and depression and ageing and dying and desperation and every single thing that I like to read about. It is non-linear, it deals with difficult, serious subjects in a non-patronising, but non-confusing way… I can’t really think of a criticism to make with the book as an idea.
So, yes, it’s good. It’s a good book. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s clever, it’s relatable, it’s well put together, it’s…
It’s the kind of novel I SHOULD have loved. But I didn’t. And I worry that that’s because I’m getting too old.
(Or I’m right and Díaz is smug…)
So, I discovered Diaz at the Jaipur Literature Festival the first year I was there and I was enamoured. He is just like his writing, which is why when I read Oscar Wao it didn’t set off the usual alarms (forced style, rambling narration, inauthentic voice). But, just as you’ve mentioned, I didn’t love it. And that’s been eating at me for a year now… until I read this. You’ve “hit the nail right on the head” and how! Yes, it’s infuriating isn’t it? It’s like, I’m going to leave this clever little piece of super-stylistic prose and let’s see if you get it. And if you do, haha, you’re as much a nerd as Oscar.
Diaz was delightful in person, a lazily eloquent panelist and absolutely swept that debate but, yes, I don’t love his writing and that makes me sad too.