Thursday, 25 September 2008

Dorky is the new cool


I think Junot Diaz's super-extra-dynamite!-popular novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was really, really good. It didn't, however, totally blow my mind the way I was constantly promised it would.

Hype is good in the book world because it gets people buying, and that's good for everyone. But it can also backfire and leave people wondering why everyone liked today's it-book so much they want to do the literary equivalent of throw their undies at the it-book's author.

(I realize this metaphor, because it calls to mind that incomparable hip swiveller Tom Jones, makes it seem like this novel's fans are all women. Au contraire - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao seems to have universal appeal. If more men would just throw their skivvies at Shania Twain when they're at her concerts I wouldn't have to do any explaining here - get with it, guys!)

I wonder if I hadn't heard anything about this book if I would have liked it more - no expectations, no(t so much) disappointment. But then I question that theory because half the books I read, I read on others' recommendations and I very often enjoy them immensely.

So, was it the incredibly strenuous way in which this book was recommended that got my expectations up unreasonably high? Was it that it seemed like a combination of Jonathan Safran Foer and Gabriel Garcia Marquez with a dash of Michael Chabon thrown in for seasoning - all good writers, but somehow a little less mind-blowing when combined? (And I would like to make it clear that no, I don't think either JSF or MC are in the same league as GGM! No one is!)

Or was it because it was too academic? People reading this post are saying "huh"? maybe. It certainly isn't the most academic and stiff novel of the many stiff novels I've read by academics (who can get all the elements right - knowing said elements is, after all, their job). But it was definitely written by someone who wanted readers to know how much they knew. That's not cool when Salman Rushdie does it and he has a cool beard and bad hair to excuse it a bit.

Also, the ridiculous academic in-jokes made me a little disappointed, with the exception of comparing Oscar's vicious ass-kicking to an 8 am Modern Language Association conference panel, which made me really disappointed. Oh dear - that's just callous and kind of sad, buddy. If used in an English class to discuss simile, that comparison would be chalked up as a poor one indeed (poor in taste and in effectiveness). At least you can draw funny pics in an 8 am MLA panel so that others think you're taking detailed and profound notes; you can't do that when you're having your teeth kicked in and praying not to die!

Anyway, the character of Oscar was really very compelling but he's not directly in the story as much as I would have liked. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed all the other family threads but I wanted Oscar to be front and centre all the time. He was the biggest dork in the world but was (therefore?) charming and tragic and hilarious and embarrassing all at once. He totally would have been my best friend...er now.

I think I feel about Diaz what some people I know felt about Jonathan Safran Foer: that he's really good but he's not end-(or beginning)-of-the-world good. That said, I'll certainly read his other stuff - really good is damned hard to find, after all.

2 comments:

raych said...

I wanted to comment on ALL your posts, but I'll stick to putting all my comments here. Yes, it is the way the book was marketed to you, because I'd heard NOTHING about it except that it won the Pulitzer (right?) and also I thought it was YA, which I kind of hate, so I ended up LURRRRVing it.

Also, Black Swan Green on the dead-book pile? BSG is one of the BEST BOOKS EVER WRITTED!!!

Also, I noticed in your profile page that you love Les Triplets de Belleville (sp disaster? I am not French), which my family has long loved, and we are convinced that Bruno is modelled after our own overweight chocolate lab.

So, generally good show on the blog, and on being you.

mel ulm said...

"Drown" is a really fun collection of short stories. It will be interesting to see Diaz develop over the years.