HARDCOVER, 335 P. RIVERHEAD BOOKS, 2007 SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY
Things have never been easy for Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd, a New Jersey romantic who dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the fukú–the ancient curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still dreaming of his first kiss, is only its most recent victim–until the fateful summer that he decides to be its last.
With dazzling energy and insight, Junot Díaz immerses us in the uproarious lives of our hero Oscar, his runaway sister Lola, and their ferocious beauty-queen mother Belicia, and in the family’s epic journey from Santo Domingo to Washington Heights to New Jersey’s Bergenline and back again. Rendered with uncommon warmth and humor, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao presents an astonishing vision of the contemporary American experience and the endless human capacity to persevere–and to risk it all–in the name of love.
A true literary triumph, this novel confirms Junot Díaz as one of the best and most exciting writers of our time.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is Junot Díaz’s first novel published in 2007, although he had ten years previously gained fame with his short story collection Drown. The book topped BBC’s Greatest Novels of the 21st Century list and it has been praised and recommended to me by many people that I admire, which is why I decided to pick it up during my library visit in March. However, the timing was a bit off, so it took me until May to finally start reading. And I’m glad I did because it is an immersive experience to the bone. You think you know what it is about, but you have no idea.
Let me tell you about the main character Oscar. First of all, his last name is not Wao – the name was given to him in jest in college and it stuck. Oscar de León grew up in New Jersey, in a neighbourhood consisting of mostly immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Growing up, Oscar and his older sister Lola quickly learn what is expected from them as Dominicans and as those lucky enough to be born in the U.S. Their mother Belicia had to fight for her way and despite being in the past known as Santo Domingo’s beauty queen, she now works two jobs to support her children. Oscar himself is quite the anti-hero: he’s an overweight, nerdy boy of colour in the contemporary US ghetto dreaming of becoming the next J.R.R. Tolkien. Lola is the family rebel: she rebels against the her mother and the expectations of the society around her. And back in her youth, Beli too rebelled against the curse of her family, the wishes of her aunt and her status as a child of the a powerful doctor who lost it all.
What first stood out to me in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was the use of language. Díaz mixes Spanish and English, academic and slang, and tops it off with a heavy dose of fantasy and comic references that all together bring humor and compassion to the story. For example, in describing Trujillo the narrator notes: “Homeboy dominated Santo Domingo like it was his very own private Mordor” whereas Oscar is known to have “a zero combat rating”. The vivacious voice of the book was, at least for me, new and exciting. I’ve never studied Spanish, so my knowledge of the language is based on what I’ve heard from TV or other people. Hence a lot of the words thrown in were unfamiliar to me. Nevertheless, I did’t feel that this was slowing down my reading experience – once you get the sense of the expression, the words don’t matter.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao maps the history of each of the de León family members, narrated by a person who’s identity remains unknown to the reader until towards the end of the book. Oscar’s contemporary struggles are placed against the backdrop of the ill-fated family and the dark days of Dominican Repulic. The timeline jumps back and forth in time building the story like a jigsaw puzzle – piece by piece you start to see some figures/themes emerging from the miscellaneous pile. One of the main characters in the story, aside from the De León family, is the Dominican Republic. The history of the country under the tyrannical ruler Rafael Leónidas Trujillo is explored in many of the footnotes that the narrator uses and through the fates of the individuals, the entire population gets a voice. My knowledge of the Dominican Republic quadrupled by simply reading this book. Another interesting element in the story is the explanation to the bad luck running in the family, the imbalance between fukú (a curse) and zafa (a blessing). The age-old beliefs circle from ancestors to the contemporary lives and give the story a twist of magical realism. For though the events can be explained with facts, the magic still feels real.
I can highly recommend The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to readers who want to diversify their reading and to find new voices. Although Oscar Wao didn’t completely wow me, the voice and the narrative structure of the story are very distinct and memorable. It is a book that is bound to stay fresh in my mind and that has enriched my idea of the “American experience”.
Poor Oscar. Without even realizing it he’d fallen into one of those Let’s Be Friends Vortexes, the bane of nerdboys everywhere. These relationships were love’s version of a stay in the stocks, in you go, plenty of misery guaranteed and what you got out of it besides bitterness and heartbreak nobody knows. Perhaps some knowledge of self and women.