Novelist Junot Diaz calls The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao "the Dominican version of the cursed House of Atreus." (Photo © Lily Oei)
I remember the first time I noticed Junot Diaz’s name. He was scheduled to read at Prairie Lights during a fairly crowded week. I read the description of his debut novel on the bookstore’s website—and promptly decided to review something else that week.
I skipped both the book and the reading. But then it seemed like everywhere I turned, I encountered a mention—and almost always a glowing mention—of Diaz’s novel. Clearly, I had missed out on something important. So I squeezed the book into my schedule. I may have jumped on board a bit late, but at least I can say I read it before it won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.
Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead Books, $24.95) calls several other books to mind. The title evokes Brady Udall’s The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint. The pervasive comic book references hint at Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The role of the shadow of Trujillo’s horrific reign in the Dominican Republic recalls the darkness of Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, a book that is mentioned in the text. And Oscar Wao’s desire to be the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien leads to a fair number of The Lord of the Rings references.
But the book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao most resembles is Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2003 novel Everything is Illuminated. Both novels—each the first by its respective author—open with linguistically arresting passages that cue the reader that the narratives that follow are grounded in unique rhythms. Similarly, both books explore horrible tragedy—both personal and societal—while serving up a sizeable portion of humor as well.
Diaz tells the story of Oscar—a consummate nerd desperate to overcome his many shortcomings and hook up with a girl—and his troubled, if not cursed, family in an argot of English and Spanish heavily spiced with references to and from comics, science fiction, and fantasy books. The text is footnoted, the narrator is intrusive, the perspective is shifting. The novel is built out of the brutal history of the Dominican Republic, but never loses its direct connection to its specific cast of characters. Diaz, like Foer before him, handles all the pyrotechnics skillfully, and delivers a story that both impresses and moves the reader.
Speaking of Pulitzer Prize winners, Iowa City hosted two in four days in early May. Both have recently released projects a bit different from the novels that won them the big award.
The aforementioned Michael Chabon, who won the Pulitzer for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, has released his first book of nonfiction. He has charted himself a successful path in Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands (McSweeney’s Books, $24). The book offers a number of pleasures, including Chabon’s thoughts on a variety of seminal comic strips as well as novels and short stories both contemporary and historical.
In each essay of this sort, Chabon demonstrates a knack for making his reader want to seek out the material he discusses—a task which is trickier than it might first appear.
He also gives examples of various aspects of his own writing career in a series of essays late in the book. He conveys what it feels like to be a writer—the frustrations, inspirations, and obsessions that are part of the writing process. Along the way, he debunks (perhaps unwittingly) his contention, found early in the book, that “I write to entertain. Period.”
Jeffrey Eugenides, who won the Pulitzer for Middlesex, recently served as editor for a wonderful collection of short stories. Though it hit bookstore shelves in time for the most romantic holiday of the year, romancers would have been well advised to consider carefully before presenting My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro (Harper, $24.95) as a Valentine’s Day gift.
Eugenides hardly gathered together a selection of feel-good stories that partners can enjoy together as literary affirmations of their love. But for readers up for a detailed and varied look at struggle and heartbreak, Eugenides put together a remarkable collection, replete with some of the most famous stories of all time and a host of decorated and beloved authors from around the world. Authors with connections to the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop are well represented, as Raymond Carver, Bernard Malamud, Stuart Dybek, and Denis Johnson each appear.
Each of these books—Pulitzers or no—are prizes in their own right.