The Morning News

The Morning News Tournament of Books, sponsored by Powell’s Books, is an annual battle royale amongst the top novels in “literary fiction” published throughout the year. Read more about this year’s tournament »

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Powell's Books


March 31, 2008



The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

all judges + JENNIFER SZALAI

TOBIAS SEAMON: These books arrived the same day I had shoulder surgery. Too stupid to tackle either right away, I reread the medieval history A Distant Mirror. With chapter titles like “Born to Woe,” and “The Fiction Cracks,” it was a not-so-distant reflection of my condition. So by the time I got to McCarthy and Díaz, I was feeling it for both. I empathized as the dazed narrator of Remainder tried to reconnect synapse, action, and reality. I was also in tune with Oscar’s Wao’s D&D geekdom. Although The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao seemed to have three different endings, with the actual end being the least believable, I understood why Díaz finally let Oscar get a piece. Both books are about recreating the self, and getting laid is almost always the first step toward that, no matter what existential dilemmas people claim. First prize to the fat kid who couldn’t resist giving his own firing squad the order to shoot.

Point: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

• •


Díaz: An A-plus zafa on the Cabral family fukú.

McCarthy: As though memories were pigeons and the accident a big noise that had scared them off.

Díaz: I would have broken the entire length of my life across her face.

McCarthy: You know as soon as you see the bastard thing that it’s not going to work.

Díaz: Breath of the Todopoderoso on their necks.

McCarthy: Just like cricket.

Díaz: Nigger, please.

Point to Díaz.

• •

JESSICA FRANCIS KANE: Did I say contests must choose winners? How about we send two Roosters? I liked both of these books. The history behind Oscar, the strange pursuit of McCarthy’s man—it’s hard to choose. Both books made me laugh, but only one made me sad, too, so I have to choose that one. The winner for me is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I read it slowly, not wanting to miss a single word.

Let’s send Díaz the Rooster and call it zafa. Good luck, man. Write more.

• •

KATE SCHLEGEL: It’s really unusual to feel, at the end of a novel, as if you still don’t know the central characters. But that’s how I felt after reading Remainder. We didn’t even know the protagonist’s name, much less why he was doing all the things he was doing. At least Oscar Wao—which I didn’t really love, either—had characters with souls. Can I cast a write-in vote for Shining at the Bottom of the Sea?

Oscar Wao wins, but not by much.

• •

ELIZABETH McCRACKEN: Perhaps all judgments should be present in the form of a disclaimer: When presented with two deeply weird, hellaciously inventive books, I will always choose the one that makes me laugh out loud.

My pick: Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

• •

ZE FRANK: After Mark Liberman’s contempt-laden hit job in Round Two, I was surprised (and pleased) to see Remainder re-appear for the finals. Liberman has offered to give his copy away. I suggest you take it. And while you are there, sift through anything else that Liberman is throwing away…my guess is you’ll find plenty of treasures.

Junot Díaz’s TBWLOOW is filled to the brim with painful, joyous love. It is impossible not to love it back. Winner: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

• •

HELEN DeWITT: Remainder: apparently innocuous obsession becomes the machinery of Hitchcockian horror. I couldn’t put it down.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: inventiveness, rage, linguistic panache place Díaz in the ranks of Rushdie and García Marquez, but the book seemed dishonest on its own terms. In 500 words I could say why; I’ve got 75.

I vote for Remainder.

• •

MARK SARVAS: Given this year’s contretemps, I suspect the less I say, the better so here goes: Two exceptional books. Two totally different books. Making a meaningful distinction here is apples/oranges impossible.

Since my proposal to hack the Rooster in two was swiftly and unanimously rejected, I am going to pick The Sav—I mean, Remainder, for no other reason than much of the literary world has already bowed before Oscar Wao, but McCarthy awaits his due.

• •

MAUD NEWTON: Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is a fascinating, often propulsive exercise that starts with a premise worthy of Rupert Thomson but stays somewhat abstract. My vote, predictably, goes to Oscar Wao. Like everyone who was gripped by Díaz mania when his short-story collection, Drown, appeared, I waited more than a decade, thrown into despair by each new report of writer’s block, to read this novel. Unlike most sophomore efforts by favorite authors, though, Oscar exceeded my expectations in nearly every particular.

• •

TED GENOWAYS: Poor Tom McCarthy. What a terrible way to have someone reading your book—measuring your narrator against Junot Díaz’s Yunior. Even McCarthy’s quirky and charming take on the nature of memory (a particular obsession of mine) doesn’t stand a chance against Díaz’s sheer energy and daring.

People keep saying that Oscar Wao is the book of the year. I certainly didn’t read every book of 2007—but I haven’t read one better.

• •

MARK LIBERMAN: Wao wins. In the battle of the brain-damaged philosophical construct vs. the lovable Latino nerd, it’s no contest:

Yay, Wao.

• •

GARY SHTEYNGART: Junot Díaz has given us the best book of the year, a book that bursts into the room, roughs everyone up, and dictates how things are going to be from now on. And it’s all done with heart, or as much heart as a generous man is allowed in this hemisphere. Not since early Bellow, folks, not since early Bellow…

• •

NICK HORNBY: Junot Díaz is still my man. I loved two-thirds of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, but in the end I felt that it disappeared up its own abstractions, and took a little too long to get to where it seemed to have been heading for a while—Borges and Barthelme were at their best in a shorter form.

Díaz’s novel, meanwhile, teems with life, can scarcely contain its own energy, and provides an authoritative but deeply imaginative history of a corner of the world I knew nothing about. It’s hard to think of a recent novel it wouldn’t have knocked out.

• •

ROSECRANS BALDWIN: What a tremendous book by Díaz! A sizzler: complete and brilliant and fun. Everyone should read it. But my heart was stolen in the last round by McCarthy.

Point to Remainder.

• •

ANDREW WOMACK: I loved Oscar Wao, and couldn’t stand Remainder for well through its first third.

Once McCarthy gets rolling, though, he tells an odd, yet wholly satisfying story. Distant and plodding, yes, but that’s the point, and it works.

• •

JENNIFER SZALAI: Since the Rooster is keen on disclosures, I’ll concede that the first few pages of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao had me worried. It all began smoothly enough, with the genesis of “the Cure and the Doom of the New World,” described with the kind of swift, incantatory sentences appropriate to legend. But then the narrator let plop a “we’ve all been in the shit ever since,” followed up a couple of pages later with “them two was tight,” “fucking Kennedy,” and “the Haitians have some shit just like it.” I’m ready when an author wants to drop a register, switch from high to low, mash it up; I just wasn’t sure if the specific execution thus far was poised to be glorious or irritating.

I’ll also concede that reading Remainder was almost a meditative experience—plain, seamless prose stripped bare of any “surplus matter,” as the narrator might put it, with all the figure-eights in the book becoming so many Möbius strips, infinity loops. Although the theme of existential alienation may be familiar enough, McCarthy takes it and twists it and transforms it into something wholly original, a narrative that isn’t a re-enactment but a re-creation.

But there’s a way in which Remainder is seamless to the point of frictionless, unmodulated by the world beyond the narrator’s fantasies; he seems to revel in matter in the end, in blood and flesh and debris, yet his ecstasy still comes off as pristine and as chilly as the Platonic pursuit that started it all. Oscar, however, is like a living organism, and, as the history of Trujillo and the Dominican Republic and the de Leon family suggests, life is surplus matter, the stuff (“the shit!” Yunior would insist) that none of us fools could have planned for.

Of course, Díaz did plan, and whatever qualms I might have had at the beginning of his novel were quickly relieved by the unmistakable control with which he builds up the rhythm of the narrative, all the while allowing his characters to wriggle around enough so that they take on lives of their own. This novel left me with the feeling that the world is more lonely, more loving, more terrible, and more beautiful than I had imagined.

Oscar it is.

FINAL: Remainder (4), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (12)

• •


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Junot Díaz responds: “I’m beyond humbled. This book took forever and broke my heart nonstop—it’s deeply gratifying that it has moved anybody at all. It’s a little strange to imagine poor Oscar fighting anyone in a tournament so you made the impossible happen. Thanks to everybody who supported any and all of these books and thanks to the Tournament for doing something so hilariously odd in support of literature. So do I get a T-shirt with that supercool rooster on it? He’s bad-ass.”

• From the Booth •

This format provides these upstart books with a fighting chance, at least until the final round where they inevitably seem to get crushed Cloverfield-style by the consensus pick. Kevin John If the keys to real estate are location, location, location, the corresponding cliché with literary fiction is character, character, character.
» Read Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner’s commentary on the match «

• The Peanut Gallery •

Do you agree with the outcome of this match?

absolutely   no way

The Standings


• Round One •

Tree of Smoke v. Ovenman
judged by Tobias Seamon

The Savage Detectives v. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name
judged by Elizabeth Kiem

Then We Came to the End v. Petropolis
judged by Anthony Doerr

You Don’t Love Me Yet v. New England White
judged by Jessica Francis Kane

Run v. Shining at the Bottom of the Sea
judged by Kate Schlegel

What the Dead Know v. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
judged by Elizabeth McCracken

On Chesil Beach v. Remainder
judged by Ze Frank

The Shadow Catcher v. An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England
judged by Helen DeWitt

• Round Two •

Tree of Smoke v. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name
judged by Mark Sarvas

Then We Came to the End v. You Don’t Love Me Yet
judged by Maud Newton

Shining at the Bottom of the Sea v. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
judged by Ted Genoways

Remainder v. The Shadow Catcher
judged by Mark Liberman


Tree of Smoke v. Then We Came to the End
judged by Gary Shteyngart

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao v. The Shadow Catcher
judged by Nick Hornby


Then We Came to the End v. Remainder
judged by Rosecrans Baldwin

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao v. The Savage Detectives
judged by Andrew Womack


Remainder v. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
All Judges + Jennifer Szalai