Thursday, August 14, 2008

Oscar Wao

I just finished reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao for my book club, and upon reflection, I have to say I don't think I liked it.

Now, for starters, we did JUST READ a coming-of-age novel about a multigenerational immigrant family suffering from a curse (Middlesex), but that wasn't really my problem with it. (However, ladies, no more multigenerational immigrant curse stories for a while, 'kay?)

The writing itself was wonderful -- sprightly, vivid, entertaining. The writing itself kept me engaged in the book. I also was proud of my ability to pick up on the more obscure nerdy references (And here I thought I was the only one who ever referenced "All Summer In a Day" to make a random point). But I came away from it feeling dissatisfied and emotionally unmoved, and after reflection I realized this is because I don't actually believe in the character of Oscar.

Oscar is spectacularly nerdy. He suffers under the dual burden of his minority status and of his obesity, but what isolates him most, the author wants us to know, is his nerdtasticness. And that's true, to a point, and everyone who's nerdy has felt that at some point, but the narrative hinges on Oscar being totally isolated from everyone but his sister and his sister's sometime boyfriend Yunior, and that I just don't buy.

First, Oscar is good-natured and kind-hearted. He's not malicious or angry, he's just weird. Follows girls around like a puppy, fumbles inappropriate approaches. But even obese, bad-looking, talks-like-a-dictionary nerds have friends if they're basically good people on the inside. I have spent my entire life related to and surrounded by nerds. I'm familiar with their taxonomy. And a nerd like Oscar might sometimes be lonely or have self-esteem issues, but he wouldn't be totally isolated and friendless unless there were something drastically wrong with his personality. There are even nerd girls (hello!) to be found at colleges across America who would have shared his interests and spoken Sindarin with him.

Second, Oscar plays D&D. And D&D is simply not a solo pursuit. He goes off to college at Rutgers and, the narrator tells us, has no friends but his sister and the narrator (and at one point a hot girl in the dorm). Rutgers is, apparently, the only college in America without a D&D club.

Third, the novel runs to 1995. By 1995 there was this series of tubes called "the internet" that someone as nerdy as Oscar would certainly have been aware of and plugged in to (as he is in college and then teaching high school at the internet-era parts of the narrative, he would certainly have had access). The internet is where even the epically socially awkward can make friends and find a tribe. Oscar probably would have been wandering a MUD slaying orcs and using his tragically sesquipidalian pick-up lines to good effect on chain-mail-bikini-clad lawful good half-elves.

So while I enjoyed the more historical parts of the narrative relating to his family, I just wasn't emotionally invested in the main character, since he seemed like a puppet on a stick to me and the narrative surrounding him depended on such an artificial construction of his reality.

The one way in which I do sort-of feel for Oscar is that I find myself thinking, "Come on, man, couldn't you have given him just a little dimensionality as a character? Just a little?"


Katie said...

Ugh! I'm 1/3 of the way through the book now.

If the rest of the group deems this a dud, then I think we need to make winning a Pulitzer reason to not read a book. (which just sounds awful... like we're too stupid to get it, which is not the case at all!)

Eyebrows McGee said...

it wasn't a dud, exactly; I just don't buy the main character. :)

B said...

Ha! You used "chain-mail-bikini-clad lawful good half-elves" to make a point!

Jennifer said...

Hi. I just finished the book over the weekend and really enjoyed it. I partially agree with your review, the language and history were my favorite parts, too, and I do wish there had been more of Oscar in the book.
However, I disagree with your assessment of his isolation. I don't think it's so much that Oscar was unable to make friends as he was unable to really establish a healthy emotional bond with others because of his depression, his insecurity due to his obesity, his up-bringing and his culture.
I think the author really emphasized that machismo in the Dominican culture is supremely important, and thus, the nerdliness was more pronounced/less accepted in his surroundings than they might be in a "white" culture. While his surroundings weren't the most accepting he also seemed emotionally incapable of leaving them for something healthier.

In regards to women, he seemed to have unreasonable expectations-seeking someone way above his "level" of phsyical attractiveness rather than seeking someone with similar interests. I think no amount of online chicas would have pulled him out of his self-sabotage.
Nevertheless, I do wish there had been more character development in regards to Oscar; the ending would have had more of an emotional pull if he had been more "present" throughout the book.