The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Apologies in advance; I cannot figure out how to get my Mac to put an accent over the letter I.

            Junot Diaz is all about the footnotes in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, because his narrator would not think of sending his readers out to face the world without his rather unique approach to Dominican history.  He informs us of important bits of information such as the fact that the dictator, Trujillo, was “also known as “El Jefe, The Failed Cattle Thief, and Fuckface” (2).  Good to know. 

            These historical tidbits become important to the text, as really all good footnotes are, or they wouldn’t be there in the first place.  What first read as amusing asides eventually weave into the plot, and a reader would be ill-advised to skip any of the footnotes.  Plus, they are funny as hell.  The narrator has a complex voice, part street colloquial, part Spanish, part SAT words.  A fly kid who uses words like “bitches” to refer to women partly ironically, partly seriously, and partly ironically about being part ironic and part serious.  The footnotes do heavy lifting to construct the layers of this voice, setting up his authority as a dude telling the truth with the facts to back him up, but doing so while farting in the direction of uptight historians who probably have poles up their asses.

            My favorite footnote comes a third of the way through the text.  It is worth quoting in full:

In my first draft, Samana was actually Jarabacoa, but then my girl Leonie, resident expert on all things Domo, pointed out that there are no beaches in Jarabacoa.  Beautiful rivers but no beaches.  Leionie was also the one who informed me that the perrito (see first paragraphs of chapter one, “GhettoNerd at the End of the World”) wasn’t popularized until the late eighties, early nineties, but that was one detail I couldn’t change, just liked the image too much.  Forgive me, historians of popular dance, forgive me! 132

Now, what are we supposed to do with a narrator who sets himself up with all sorts of gossipy historical footnotes only to blithely undercut himself like that?  We throw up our hands and settle in for the ride, is what.

            One hundred and fifty pages later, in the text, we get “A Note From Your Author,” shortly after he introduces a the character Ybon, an aging protitute:

I know what Negroes are going to say.  Look, he’s writing Suburban Tropical now.  A puta and she’s not an underage snort-addicted mess.  Not believable.  Should I go down to the Feria and pick me up a more representative model?  Would it be better if I turned Ybon into this other puta I know, Jahyra, a friend and a neighbor in Villa Juana, who still lives in one of those old-style pink wooden houses with the zinc roof? … But then I’d be lying.  I know I’ve thrown a lot of fantasy and sci-fi into the mix, but this is supposed to be a true account of the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. 284-5

In other words, he’s totally toying with us, people.  It’s not one of those annoying books that forever reminds you that the narrator is unreliable.  No, it’s a book that amuses itself with the fact that the narrator is unreliable.

            This is not to say that the book is flighty.  It is a serious book, but it has a sense of humor about itself.  The footnotes, for example, are real notes, with actual helpful information, but they are also ironic because they are written in a decidedly un-academic voice, but you never get the sense that Diaz is admiring his own irony.  Rather, he is wry about his wryness. 

            There is, of course, much more that I could write about in this book; those Pulitzer people knew what they were doing with this one.  But, so much has already been written by other people, and if you actually haven’t read this one yet, I don’t want to include any spoilers.  That’s going to be a running theme around here – I am going to talk about books in a way that doesn’t negate the need for you to read them if, by some chance, your teacher is planning a reading quiz tomorrow morning.

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7 responses to “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

  1. I’m going to add it to my list. I’m intrigued about the footnotes. I end up cutting so much that I personally find interesting from my drafts because the interesting detracts from the story or the characters or the shape of the books. That’s why I blog. To include footnotes, and yet link them so tightly to the story, takes discipline!

  2. I’ve seen that book several times in the bookstore… but for some reason, haven’t picked it up.

    You were interested in suggestions for your reviews. I just finished one called “Veronika Decides to Die” by Paulo Coelho. Interesting concept. It would be good to get your take on it.

    ~*

  3. I’ve looked at the book and not been tempted up until now. But I might give it a go. Humorous footnotes sounds like something I’ve been waiting all my life for. 😉

  4. This sounds great! I’m not sure I would have picked it up if you hadn’t written this, but the next time I pass the Strand I’ll be looking for it.

    For the lovers of significant footnotes (and genre fiction!) I also recommend Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

  5. Oh yes yes! Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell! Wonderfully strange and strangely wonderful. I always gets preoccupied with the footnotes (and the comments, clearly). For some reason I had a negative association with Junot Diaz. Now it’s gone. Yay.

  6. This blog was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally
    I have found something that helped me. Cheers!

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