Wow! This Putlizer prize winning novel by Junot Diaz is tough to characterize. The story alternates narrators and jumps through time, telling the stories of an American teenagers Oscar de León, his sister Lola, their mother Beli (who emigrated from the Dominican Republic), and their grandfather Abelard. Oscar is overweight, obsessed with science fiction and fantasy, and consequently has some trouble fitting in at school. Lola is rebellious against her not-so-affectionate mother. Although Oscar and Lola are American, the story keeps returning to the Dominican Republic, both in the present, as Oscar and Lola return to visit, and in the past, as we learn how the lives of Beli and Abelard were profoundly affected by the oppressive dictatorship of Trujillo. As one narrator puts it, “Trujillo was Mobutu before Mobutu was Mobutu.”
It took me a while to get into the book, but ultimately I couldn’t put it down. Oscar keeps wanting to be better, but — like so many of us — he “seem[s] to be allergic to diligence.” The language — quick moving and sharp — moves fluidly between English and Dominican (Spanish) slang, with more references to science fiction and fantasy literature peppered in than I could keep up with. Diaz twists familiar tropes in interesting ways, as in his characterization of “nerd heaven — where every nerd gets 58 virgins to role play with.” The allusions range from the explicit — “I’m going to be the Dominican Tolkien” — to the implicit but obvious — “”Hiding your doe-eyed, large-breasted daughter from Trujillo, however, was…like keeping the ring from Sauron” (Lord of the Rings) — to the deep dive — “Sucks to be left out of adolescence, sort of like getting locked in the closet on Venus when the sun appears for the first time in a hundred years” (which is an allusion to Ray Bradbury’s wonderful story, “All Summer in a Day“). When Diaz tells of a Dominican teenager who rides a motorcycle between movie theaters because they share the reels to a single film, I recalled a similar sequence in the Italian film Cinema Paradiso. One ambitious reader has compiled annotations on many of the allusions online.
I lived in the Dominican Republic for two years, and I’ve read and loved a couple of novels about the Trujillo dictatorship — Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies and Mario Vargas Llosa’s La Fiesta del Chivo (The Feast of the Goat). Diaz talks about both of those, as well as a number of historical accounts (like La era de Trujillo, by Galíndez), all seamlessly woven into the fictional narrative.
Lev Grossman, author of the Magicians series that I’ve enjoyed deeply, wrote in Time magazine that the novel is a “massive, heaving, sparking tragicomedy.”
I tried the audiobook but it didn’t engage me. I shifted to the printed version and enjoyed it much more. Note on content: The book is full of strong language, sexual references, and occasional beatings.