The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
By: Junot Díaz
Where do I begin? This novel sucked me in and did not let go until I finished it. It was hard not to read it riding the escalator, walking to work, even crossing the street. (Only my fear of being run over stopped me there.) The story is written in a perfect blend of English and Dominican Spanish. I know very little Spanish, and even less about the Dominican Republic, and I was still able to really enjoy this book (even if there were references and jokes I missed).
Díaz weaves together many stories, of individuals, their families, a nation and the hardships, the curses they endure. The different narratives, told from alternating perspectives, come together to strengthen rather than muddle the story. As the title indicates, the main story line follows the life of Oscar, an obese, unhappy Dominican-American nerd from New Jersey. The story alternates between the DR and Dominican communities in New Jersey. Díaz paints a rich family history of the de León and Cabral families as if his novel were instead a historiography. (Wao is just a cruel nickname, from “Oscar Wilde” mispronounced). The main actors in Oscar’s life also tell their life stories: there are several chapters from the perspective of his sister, Lola and his abuela, La Inca. The narrator, Oscar’s best friend Yunior, frequently breaks the fourth wall, addressing the reader directly via footnotes, some of which are actually my favorite parts of this book.
These footnotes are long and detailed, often darkly funny or bitingly sarcastic, describing important cultural and historical background for readers unfamiliar with the DR. For example, when explaining to the reader that the pejorative pariguϋayo came about during the First American Occupation of the DR (1916-1924), Díaz quips, “You didn’t know we were occupied twice in the twentieth century? Don’t worry, when you have kids they won’t know the U.S. occupied Iraq either” (Díaz 35). Díaz is in turns critical (toward those who are cruel and misuse power, especially Trujillo and his minions but also the US government) and compassionate (toward his characters, and by extension the people of the DR and Diaspora. However, I should note that he does not let anyone off the hook, so to speak; he is also critical of el pueblo, but in ways that account for the complexities of life in the DR.
Oscar himself is a fan of “genres”, pretty much anything fantasy or sci-fi, which combined with his affinity for using big words, his size, and his shy awkwardness make for a really hard life. I love the author’s frequent and detailed references to various comic books, movies, and video games from the genre. He has a knack for capturing the tortured soul. According to his Wikipedia page (my favorite source, in case you haven’t noticed, dear reader), Díaz has said, “Oscar was a composite of all the nerds that I grew up with who didn’t have that special reservoir of masculine privilege. Oscar was who I would have been if it had not been for my father or my brother or my own willingness to fight or my own inability to fit into any category easily.” (Wikipedia).
Like all great books, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao challenges you to think about the real problems that people face. It’s tough on the heart, everywhere there is suffering and cruelty and bad luck, both fictional and real, but it is definitely worth the heartbreak. By making me feel for his characters, Díaz has made me feel for his people.