We're meant to come to love Oscar de Leon as we get to know him, and we're meant to be saddened and moved by his death (not a spoiler; read the title). We're to feel his conspicuousness and awkwardness with him, we're to be wrenched with his angst and hopelessness, we're to rouse ourselves as Oscar does near the end, finally taking control of his life and demanding what's rightfully his. When the narrator (of most, but not all, of the book) tells us how special (wondrous?) Oscar is, we're to bob our heads in agreement and press on with his story, rooting for him all the way but not daring to hope for the best, since we know how brief his life will be.
Well, none of that happened to me. I met Oscar, learned everything there was to know about him in fact, and I don't particularly care for him, or about him. That's a huge problem for this book, because unless you're strapped in and keeping your hands inside the ride, you're apt to be left watching as the promise of a fulfilling literary experience passes you by.
Plenty of good books have starred characters you don't like, or even care about. The problem with Oscar Wao is that it's numbingly obvious that that's not supposed to be the case here, and anyway, the characters in Oscar's orbit, some with actually interesting stories and motives, aren't enough to make this a memorable or moving book. And the plot is uninteresting enough that Diaz bolts on a supernatural subtext in hopes it will give the book more heft. It feels bolted on; it feels like a TV drama that the network decided at the last minute needed a little extra something. "Now hear us out — what if there's this curse following the family and dooming, um, some of them?"
Diaz's writing is technically very good; while his characters aren't all that interesting, they're believable, even a couple you would expect not to find believable (there is, I'm not kidding, a whore with a heart of gold who is essential to the story). You're never bogged down by stilted narrative, unnecessary tangents; the story is tightly and briskly told. What he fails to do is weave his ideas (political revenge, the cultural demands on Dominican men, multifaceted relationships between mothers and daughters, finding and losing love) into a book that does them justice. These interesting ideas feel extraneous to the awesomeness of Oscar, who, as I say, isn't awesome.