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Junot Díaz: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

This novel won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize, and unsurprisingly it was great. The narrative voice is quite in-your-face and virtuosic, which I could understand turning some people off and judging from the Amazon reviews it did, but I dug it. It jumps around in space between New Jersey and the Dominican Republic and in time between the mid and late 20th century in an effective way, the plot expanding outwards in all directions (time and space) from an 1980s New Jersey core.

There are already a million reviews of this book so I don’t feel the need to say anything in particular for the million and first time, but one sort of interesting aspect jumped out at me. I’m used to historical novels covering the history behind the novel rather implicitly; you’re supposed to either already know the historical background or pick it up by reading between the lines as you see how it affects the individual people of the story. Dí­az on the other hand is unafraid to insert lengthy (though informal) footnotes, David Foster Wallace-style, about the history of the Dominican Republic all over the place to make sure you understand everything he is trying to get across, but on the other hand peppers the narrative throughout with largely-unexplained SF allusions and metaphors. I have to admit that it was pretty neat to see him make some offhand reference to Morgoth or Tracy Hickman or the gom jabbar and get that feeling of “Hey, I understand that, all of my past reading has paid off” in the way that I usually only get when someone is compared to Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary or something. It made me realize that genre literature can actually be a fairly rich source of references, so kudos to Dí­az for being willing to use it in a work with real literary pretensions.

Plus I learned a lot of interesting things about the D.R., largely because he is so generous with those explanatory footnotes. Hopefully the next time I read a Latin American book, I will have another “Hey, I understand that, all of my past reading has paid off” moment.

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