‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ named Best Novel of the 21st Century…so far.

A recent poll of US critics have named Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao the best novel of the 21st Century, to date. In a list of more than 150 acclaimed novels, Diaz’s best-selling story of Dominican-American “ghetto nerd”, Oscar de León, fended off competition from Hilary Mantel’s Tudor epic Wolf Hall, and Edward P. Jones The Known World, to claim the top spot.

The novel traces the story of Oscar, and his struggle to find love, his dreams of becoming a writer, the intimate and often fractious relations between his family and their Dominican heritage. More familiar with sci-fi fiction, comics, reading and role-playing games than romance, Oscar has very little luck with love, or as Diaz puts it, ‘except for one period early in his life, dude never had much luck with the females (how very un-Dominican of him)…He was seven then.’

This is a story that charts the struggles of adolescence, of love, and the trials of growing up with a dual nationality, in which the distinctly “un-Dominican” Oscar is not the typical hero. Nor is he ‘the hero of comic books or science-fiction movies, no ‘home-run hitter or a fly bachatero’. Oscar de León is instead an endearing, comical, and ultimately tragic figure. Most of all, Diaz’s hero unashamedly reflects the slightly nerdy tendencies and adolescent insecurities that most of us have experienced at one point or another.

As a fan of virtually anything Junot Díaz writes (let’s face it, the guy is unbelievably cool) I admit I am somewhat biased in my opinions of Oscar Wao. I first fell in love with the novel in my final undergraduate year, when I was immersed in Latin American literature and scrabbling around to find something I could produce a half-decent essay on. I read a lot of great novels that year, I was quite spoilt for choice. But Oscar Wao struck a chord.

Upon its publication in 2007, Time Out magazine declared Díaz’s novel to be ‘technically breath-taking, undeniably funny, and filled with something many novels lack: an enormous amount of heart’. The New York Times gave the novel a similar review, claiming it to be ‘Both a big picture window that opens out to the sorrows of Dominican history’ yet as the same time remaining a ‘small, intimate window that reveals one family’s life and loves’. Other reviews raved that the novel held a ‘startling originality’ and a ‘manic energy’.

Still, ‘The Best Novel of the 20th Century’ is quite a title to carry, and begs the question: is it simply too early to declare any novel to be the very ‘best’ of this century? The critics seem keen, but there’s still a sizeable chunk of the century left. 15 years in, I think it’s safe to say, makes for a fairly premature prediction. The result may have differed had British critics been polled. Would Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall have topped the charts? (it may have at least remained top three, thanks to the BBC’s current on-screen adaptation). Or perhaps Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty might have pipped Zadie Smith or Ian McEwan’s fiction to the post? (Zadie Smith appears in the list for two of her novels, White Teeth and NW, which is quite an achievement in itself).

Premature or not in their predictions, the poll has nonetheless highlighted a wonderful range of novels. It reads like a “who’s who” guide to contemporary literature, and is a ready-made reading list for anyone searching for a novel that will stick in the mind for a while. Those stories, when stumbled upon, are the best kind.

For now, let’s just revel in the fact that nerdy little Oscar has triumphed over Henry VIII and his tudor court. Quite the heroic story.


c/o The Guardian



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