Let's be honest. When reading a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, one doesn't really expect review descriptions such as “vibrant,” “exhilarating,” and “gi...moreLet's be honest. When reading a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, one doesn't really expect review descriptions such as “vibrant,” “exhilarating,” and “giddily glorious.” Given Diaz's most immediate award predecessors (hello Geraldine Brooks, Marilynne Robinson and Edward P. Jones!), I'd really expect something more along the lines of “transcendent,” “delicate,” and “unobtrusive.” One can't help but wonder if the 2008 judges just decided to pull a Michael Steele and get all hip-hop on one of the world's greatest literary prizes. If they did, though, they were definitely more successful than the former RNC chairman.*
When discussing Diaz, it's almost impossible not to mention the book's urban and contemporary narrative style. A few comments come up over and over: 1.) the titular character, Oscar Wao is a big geek; 2.) Oscar isn't nearly as compelling as his sometime narrator Yunior, his crazy sister Lola, or his scary intense mother Beli; 3.) Trujillo—what an a**hole! 4.) there is great internet fun to be had in identifying all the nerdy/geeky Tolkien, D&D, Marvel, and Alan Moore references; and 5.) footnotes, DFW style. While each of these elements is arresting on its own, it is the interplay between the unusual formal and thematic structures that makes the book so utterly worth reading: a history of one of the 20th century's most brutal dictators told in the language of Mordor and hit points; a bittersweet Bildungsroman in which Yunior (or is it Diaz?) and not Oscar becomes the writer of interest; a commentary on desire (political, sexual, economic, national, romantic) sculpted around the story of Oscar's inability to get a girl and Yunior's inabilty to keep one. And woven throughout all of that is an argument about genre (the immigrant experience, the coming of age narrative, the hero arc, political history) and our expectations for how we read some stories differently than others. For myself, most compelling is not how Diaz blends these genres so seamlessly in a postmodern novel (confusing, at points, even the divide between author, narrator, and character), but his exposure of how we read the transition of cultural capital across national, social, and class borders, and the way in which genre so often works to preserve, rather than deconstruct, those borders. The average reader of historical fiction is going to have a tough time reading this novel at a sentence level unless also well versed in The Hobbit; the average reader of science fiction/fantasy had also better be boning up on their Spanish slang and South American history; the average reader of Pulitzer Prize winners just flat out won't know what hit them.**
There was an eleven year gap between Diaz's collection of short stories, Drown, and the appearance of Oscar Wao. If we only get one book every decade, though, it will still be worth the wait.