First, I loved this book. I would head towards a five-star rating, but I haven't figured out whether this will be "desert island" material.
Second, I read this on a kindle-style e-reader on a plane, and as a result, I couldn't access the footnotes -- still haven't, although I will go back and see what they add to the experience, if anything. Couldn't write in the margins (so this review will be devoid of any specific quotations). Don't know any Spanish, and didn't have access to a translator -- didn't matter; got the clues from the context and my limited French. Also, know nothing about comic books or the Fantastic 4--can't contribute to the character mapping on that front. I don't like literal analogies or allusions anyway; and can't imagine that a comic book--or, err, pardon me "graphic novel" as they seem to be called these days--could or should add much in the way of illuminating these characters or defining the plot.
All that said, my experience of the novel is perhaps missing many layers that would add richness and complexity; or perhaps confusion and points of annoyance. But my extremely narrow reading experience did let me focus on the characters, their stories, their relationships with each other and their culture, socialization and politics, and the plot.
LOVED: the fukú and zafa, the magic realism, and the depiction of DR culture and politics as structures to build the plot and move the story along. Thought that the clear presentation of good and evil in DR politics contrasted nicely with the more ambiguous presentation in the main characters, where acts of goodness and those of evil (especially, Beli's) were much less clear. And there is a theme here--sounds trite to write it out--of not judging a book by its cover, or an individual by their looks, or even in some cases, by their acts.
LOVED: the extraordinary portrayal of all these vulnerable, hurt, abused and suffering characters, how they got that way and how they saw each other and themselves, mashed up together in a culture that, evidently, can be crushing in terms of the strictness of the standards one needs to meet to find love, study hard, do good work, experience life and basically just survive.
LOVED: The theme of self-determination and the possibility of change, the classic fate-versus-freewill struggle: does the fukú shape your fate, or can you define your own trajectory separate from it?
Oscar (the book and the character) was, for me, a deeply felt, complex portrait of the angst and tragic beauty of the misfit, the social outcast, the self-delusional, self-ascribed genius who--bereft of 'normal' social interaction and life experiences--acts on his own frustrated desires, dreams and wishes as though they are reality, makes tragic life choices that lead to a cycle of despair and ongoing dorkery. He obsessively dwells in a fantasy world created by others--through his comics, anime and sci-fi--and then creates fantasy worlds for himself through his ruminations, writing and unrequited desires.
These both protect him and further isolate him and in fact, lead to his demise through what he believes is a grand romantic gesture, one which can be read as Oscar finally taking his own fate into his own hands, but which was a completely foolish, stupid and unnecessary act born of yet another unfulfilled and delusional romantic fantasy. And the psychoanalyst in me says, also a suicide.
Another thing I love about Oscar--as a character and as a story--is its feeling of inevitability.
Not only because we are told from the cover onwards that he'll be dead by the end of the story, but also because Oscar can't change.
Absolutely can't change, no matter how miserable, how lonely, or how much everyone around him--his sister, Yunior, La Inca, even Beli, in her own way--try to help him change. And even at the end, when he seems to have convinced himself that he HAS changed, he really hasn't--his final act, his return to the DR despite his knowledge of the danger he is in, is not an act of bravery (nor of cowardice) ... it is simply the inevitable playing out of the fukú, or if you don't believe that, the inevitable conclusion to a sad and pathetic life.
Oscar is, in fact, probably that part of all of us that we rage against, are repulsed by, flee from and are terrified that we were, are or will become. I wonder if responses to this book are more positive among those of us who identify and therefore sympathize with Oscar? Oscar is easy to pity, on the surface, and I bet many of us have pitied the Oscars of the world: and yet, in that pity is contained both mockery and guilt and a shameful, buried self-identification.
This is the brilliance of what Junot has created in Yunior (who IS the central character here, I wonder?), who displays that simultaneous attraction and repulsion, pity for and identification with Oscar. To me, Yunior is Diaz’s crowning achievement here (and if you buy that Yunior is Diaz, then you can probably analyze the arrogance and conceit that is in that, but let that not detract from the genius of his creation). Yunior, in depicting Oscar as a nerd who uses big words inappropriately and socializes strangely and alarmingly in general, but especially with girls and women, repeatedly lets slip his own insecurities and similarities to Oscar.
I am always very attracted to stories that hinge on choices deliberately made, and their opposite, random chance, and the influence that each of these has on characters’ lives. Oscar is resonant with all of these themes.
I really enjoyed the display of technique that Diaz shows in starting the story from the third-person omniscient narrator POV, and then us realizing that this is Yunior, then switching it up to tell the story from Lola’s first-person POV. Et cetera.
And finally, the relationship between Oscar and Lola, his older sister and ultimate protector/defender, and Oscar's own depression so exquisitely rendered by Diaz, with again that feeling of inevitability and despair, rang home loud and clear for me, and often brought me to tears on the plane as I was flipping electronically through the pages of these lives.