The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
Publisher: Riverhead
Year: 2008
Pages: 352

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has garnered critical acclaim: this we cannot deny1. I’d been hearing about it since it came out, the long-awaited first novel from a short fiction writer with one book of collected short stories under his belt (11 years ago!).

Similarly undeniable is the long legacy of terror and misery under the rule of Rafael Trujillo, a US-backed fascist who ruled the Dominican Republic with unprecedented greed, lust, and violence in the middle of last century; just as present is the unquenchable spirit and culture of the Dominican people. Díaz, in fact, begins by talking about two subjects which inform the rest of this (nominally fictional) novel: one, the Dominican folklore surrounding the fukü, or a sort of domestic evil spirit with haunts entire lineages, an artifact perhaps of the mutt-like nature of the Dominican Republic’s ethnicity. Second is Rafael Trujillo, the depravity, savagery, and utter evil of whom Díaz cannot overstate.

It would be a mistake to let the title fool you into the thinking that this book is about poor fat Oscar Wao, an overweight second-generation Dominican immigrant living in Jersey. As a matter of fact, only a small portion of the book is about him—the rest is split pretty much equally into detailing the history of his family, both as an immigrant family in the United States and a fearful group in Trujillo’s Dominican Republic.

Let me acknowledge now the possibility that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has achieved some incredible measure of cultural synthesis that’s managed to escape me; that it’s acquired a perfect storm of cultural sensitivity and political trendiness. I’m unsure how else to account for its critical success, because while it wasn’t a bad book, it did not leave me gasping the breath the way it intended to.

Stylistically, the books walks a tightrope between being pomo and being poor: Díaz narrates in English, beginning at least with English-speaking characters. But he has a tendency to slip into Spanish (I’m assuming some of it is Dominican vernacular), mostly randomly, which has the effect of breaking up the narrative flow. Some authors trying to give a sense of multiculturalism will occasionally use a foreign word, italicized, and then explain its English equivalent parenthetically. Not Díaz; no, he replaces English words for their Spanish equivalents with no apparent sense, as though he let a computer change every nth phrase into Spanish. If this was his attempt at a sort of stream-of-conscious writing, it’s a poor one: the narrator changes with each chapter, but one gets the overriding sense that everything is ultimately filtered through a third party who sometimes breaks into the first person and opines about his own Dominican-ness. It’s still too structured, too planned to be SoC, and yet seems engineered to evince just such a characteristic. I feel as though Díaz is attempting to manipulate me, and I don’t like it.

At any rate, the life of our titular character is told in some degree by the life of his family and his forebears, who take up the majority of the pages here relative to him. The propensity to fall madly and irrationally in love—one of Oscar’s weaknesses, especially sad considering his obesity and lack of social skills—turns out to be familial in nature, perhaps metaphorically (literally?) represented by this ever-present fukü.

It’s simply uncomfortable. Oscar Wao is a consummate nerd; a Dungeons & Dragons-playing, Akira-watching, poster-hanging, fanfic-writing geekboy, speaking with the practiced eloquence of an intelligent comic book character and failing pretty much utterly at everything he does. We neither like Oscar or respect him by the end of the book; he is, for all intents and purposes, an antihero, if you could even call him that. In fact, Oscar Wao isn’t even a particularly important part of the story, but rather some rather fat bookends which contextualize everything else that’s said. Our illustrious narrator, by extension, routinely compares the political situation to things in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

But I wasn’t impressed, overall. I think book was a hot mess, full of florid prose and intense characterization that drowns in Díaz’s attempt to ethnicize, modernize, and politicize the damn thing all at the same time. I don’t get any coherent message or idea from it. It’s a cipher to me, overly abstruse and drowning in the weight of it’s own pretensions.

  1. Among author awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2008[]
§3016 · November 15, 2008 · Tags: , , , , ·

6 Comments to “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”

  1. Nicholas Tam says:

    I read this a few months ago and enjoyed it immensely, though I agree that it was much too thick with untranslated Spanish. (Most of the Spanish phrases turned out to be curse words or synonyms for "ass", though, so they were probably there to sound punchy when read aloud more than anything.) I do think there’s a coherent idea unifying the whole book: the equation of the fukú, the family curse, with the scar the Trujillo regime left on Dominicans for generations to come – especially in the coding of brutality and violence as masculine ideals. Hence, the persistent retelling of history in mythic/magical/Tolkienian terms. It’s true that the title misleads one to expect Oscar to be a main character in the conventional sense of an empowered subject, when he’s really just a hapless object at the tail end of historical abuse.

    Not that any of that makes the book more enjoyable for you, but that’s how I interpreted it.

  2. Ben says:

    No, I think you’re on the money in casting the book as a sort of extended metaphor (characters’ nonreciprocated love as human nature, resulting brutality and despair as Trujillato qua acknowledgment of generalized death/misfortune). I just think it was rather inartfully done—Diáz slathers on appropriated pop culture and other such nuggets hoping that enough will stick to make his metaphor hip and accessible.

  3. Brady says:

    I’m not sure that the pop culture references and the Spanglish were attempts to be cute, although I can see how they could be viewed that way. I’m sure it is ridiculously obtuse if you A. don’t know Spanish and/or B. don’t know the sci-fi/fantasy references.

    1. Having read Drown and having heard Diaz speak, I can tell you that is the way he talks/thinks/writes. A lot of my Dominican students talk like that.

    2. I think the pop culture references underscore the secret nerd hidden underneath the narrator’s Dominican machismo.

    Nicholas hits the nail on the head when he writes that the true curse on Dominican culture is "the coding of brutality and violence as masculine ideals". I would also add hypersexuality to that list, as well as suggest that the scar goes back further than Trujillo- you can look back at least to Christopher Columbus for the origins of this "gift" that keeps on giving, ultimately consuming Oscar that same way it did the Tainos..

  4. Ben says:

    I don’t doubt the authenticity (Dominican-ness). I just think it’s in many ways an utterly alien creation to anyone who’s not Dominican. Explaining Trujillato by way of Dominican folklore and sci-fi/fantasy tropes seems to me a bad idea from the get-go, but maybe I’m just not extending myself far enough to meet Diaz halfway.

    I suppose my expectations for the book simply got in my way: I kept waiting for Diaz to prove to me that this was something exceptional, not simply a culturally-colorful flashback.

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