The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Díaz

Hardcover, 2007





New York : Riverhead Books, 2007.


Things have never been easy for Oscar. A ghetto nerd living with his Dominican family in New Jersey, he's sweet but disastrously overweight. He dreams of becoming the next J.R.R. Tolkien and he keeps falling in love. But poor Oscar may never get what he wants, thanks to the ancient curse that has haunted his family for generations.

Media reviews

Díaz’s novel also has a wild, capacious spirit, making it feel much larger than it is. Within its relatively compact span, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” contains an unruly multitude of styles and genres. The tale of Oscar’s coming-of-age is in some ways the book’s thinnest layer, a young-adult melodrama draped over a multigenerational immigrant family chronicle that dabbles in tropical magic realism, punk-rock feminism, hip-hop machismo, post-postmodern pyrotechnics and enough polymorphous multiculturalism to fill up an Introduction to Cultural Studies syllabus.
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It is Mr. Díaz’s achievement in this galvanic novel that he’s fashioned both a big picture window that opens out on the sorrows of Dominican history, and a small, intimate window that reveals one family’s life and loves. In doing so, he’s written a book that decisively establishes him as one of contemporary fiction’s most distinctive and irresistible new voices.

User reviews

LibraryThing member davidabrams
Meet Oscar de Leon, dubbed "Oscar Wao" by bullies who liken him to the foppish Oscar Wilde. Our Oscar is a fat, virginal Dominican-American teenager who carries a Planet of the Apes lunchbox to school, spends hours painting his Dungeons & Dragons miniatures, and who knows "more about the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee." If Nerd was a country, Oscar would be its undisputed king. Oscar is the kind of kid we would avoid on the subway—sweaty, mumbles to himself, inevitably invades personal space, probably has bad breath.

In Junot Diaz' debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, however, Oscar is the flame and we are the moths. An earnestly open-hearted protagonist, he draws us to him until we incinerate in the intensity of his character. He's a pitiful-but-hopeful loser we can all relate to, even the Prom Kings and Queens among us (who might just be the loneliest kids in school). The last time I was this absorbed by a fictional weirdo was in 1989 when John Irving's Owen Meany forced me--FORCED, I SAY!—to read his Prayer twice in rapid, thirsty succession. Oscar held me captive in much the same way with his sweaty, sticky fingers tightly gripping my attention.

Let's return to Diaz for a moment. To use the words "Diaz" and "debut novel" in such close proximity is something of a joke. Diaz has been a middleweight figure on the literary scene for eleven years, based almost exclusively on his previous (and only) book Drown, a collection of interconnected stories which, like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, chronicled the Dominican immigrant experience with a startling freshness. If you turn to the back flap of that 1996 book, you'll read an author bio which concludes with "He lives in New York City and is at work on his first novel." That was eleven years ago. To say that Oscar Wao was much-anticipated would be an understatement.

Why the long wait? Tick off the reasons on your fingers: writer's block, the paralysis of sudden fame at a young age (Diaz was in his late 20s when the accolades started flooding in), working for years on an apocalyptic novel about the destruction of New York City which was eventually trumped by the sur-reality of 9/11, you name it. Little of that matters now, except as a trivial footnote, because at last we hold in our hands the solid, substantial Oscar Wao. We can rest assured that Junot Diaz won’t turn out to be this generation’s Harper Lee.

Now back to Oscar. As the novel's title implies, this is the chronicle of Oscar's brief, candle-flame life and charts his quest, but rarely conquest, of girls. You see, not only is Oscar a Tolkein-loving, Star Trek-quoting, Dungeons & Dragons-playing geek, he's a horny geek whose tongue hangs out and eyes bulge in cartoon cones every time a pretty girl walks by. The only trouble is, as his friend Yunior points out, "Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber." Save for one incredibly happy encounter late in his life, Oscar's lust is unrequited, but he takes this as a matter of course because he believes his family is living under the cloud of an Old-World curse called fuku brought to our shores by Columbus.

Despite wearing the family doom like a black, itchy sweater and meeting romantic rejection at every turn, Oscar optimistically journeys through the 1970s, "the dawn of the Nerd Age," Diaz writes. It's Oscar against the world and he glumly accepts his lot in life. "Everybody," he says at one point, "misapprehends me." As he grows older and retreats from his peers into the other-worlds of Lovecraft, Doc Savage, Asimov, Heinlein and Edgar Rice Burroughs, Oscar begins to think his destiny is to be "the Dominican Tolkein." He spends countless hours holed up in his room writing science-fiction and fantasy sagas. If Diaz had allowed, Oscar probably would have spent eleven years working on his masterpiece; but, as we're always reminded, this is a brief life. Oscar tries to make the most of it, even with the fuku hanging over his head.

The novel is more than just a Nerd Epic, however. Diaz pulls out all the stops in an attempt to tell an all-encompassing story of immigration and assimilation. Oscar lives with his mother and sister in the ghetto of Paterson, New Jersey, and the novel is as much their story as it is his. We're just starting to groove with sympathy for fat little Oscar when Diaz suddenly shifts gears and takes us into the world of Lola, Oscar's beautiful, athletic sister who has a stormy relationship with their mother, Belicia, a "hardnosed no-nonsense femme-matador." Then, before too many more pages have elapsed, we're deep in that woman's story, in an extended flashback called "The Three Heartbreaks of Belicia Cabral," where we learn what happened to her back in the Dominican Republic to make her so bitterly protective of her children. These chapters, along with the rest of the book are truly shaped by heartbreak, a tragedy written by fuku which determines the course of everything to come, from Oscar's obsession with Shazam to Lola's runaway teen saga.

Diaz proves to be something of a risk-taker. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao bravely assumes there is an audience of readers who will sit through a long novel in which the English and Spanish languages mingle without the author once stopping to translate the unfamiliar words. The gist of what the Spanglish phrases mean is pretty easy to pick up, and for those readers who absolutely have to know what guapa or chuleria mean…well, an English-Spanish dictionary is as close as the internet.

Diaz also hopes his readers will come to the table with some knowledge of Dominican history, specifically the tyrannical regime of Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961 and who, if Oscar is to be believed, was master of the fuku. Trujillo who? You know, the "portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulato who bleached his skin, wore platform shoes, and had a fondness for Napoleon-era haberdashery." If your mind is as blank as mine when it comes to the island's past, never fear: Diaz replays the highlights of Santo Domingo History 101 in footnotes which annotate the novel. Yes, footnotes. The novel is peppered with them, as any well-respecting Screed of Nerd should be. Diaz understands most of us don't know squat about Dominicans and, as in Drown, he brings us briskly into the light. (Pay attention to Trujillo, though, because he plays an important role in Oscar's destiny.)

Diaz never lets the pace lag and his sentences remain fresh and sharp throughout. One woman is described with "eczema on her hands looking like a messy meal that had set"; later, Yunior tells us what it's like to be mugged: "my guts feeling like they'd been taken out of me, beaten with mallets, and then reattached with paper clips." Through his wondrous use of language, Diaz brings the book alive and makes it tremble in our hands.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an epic in the truest sense and in its fat, endearing hero's chest beats a Homeric heart. Oscar leads us through his unflagging quest for happiness, while Diaz tumbles us through a century of Dominican history and shows us how the brief life of one lonely boy can epitomize the immigrant experience. This novel was well worth the decade-long wait.
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LibraryThing member FicusFan
This book is about a family of Americans whose roots and family are in the Dominican Republic. It shows them struggling through life in the US, and in the DR.

It had some funny moments, but mostly its something I feel the need to scrape off my shoe. It is written in what could kindly be called dialect, but is really part of the 'ignorance is cool oeuvre'.

The narrator calls everyone the N-word, and often doesn't speak in complete sentences, though he is a college graduate. It is full of Spanish, Spanglish, and cool slang, The main subject of the book seems to be the use and abuse of women as the definition of normal. Scoring is the only way to win in the game of life.

Throughout it all Oscar, the nerd, the reader, the writer, the speaker in proper sentences with a decent vocabulary, the good hearted, and the respectful, is denigrated, portrayed as a wacko, his masculinity erased, and his Dominican-ness denied. Finally he is killed because he is unable to change. Can we say anti-intellectual ? Of course it won the Pulitzer.

Perhaps there are those who will claim the author is not promoting these ideas, but is being ironic. The whole tone is just too snide for me to swallow that.

The book moves along quickly, but has to make fun of everyone and everything: history, the murdered. the dictatorship, the two other books about the subject [In the Time of the Butterflies] and [The Feast of the Goat].

The story is chopped up and told from various viewpoints. It jumps around and doesn't seem to have a point, other than to be cool.
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LibraryThing member littlegeek
Well, apparently the Pulitzer committee really loves those family epic immigrant experience books, because this one reminded me so much of MIddlesex, just with Dominicans instead of Greeks. Most effective when evoking all the terror and sadness of living under Trujillo.

I was a bit disappointed in Oscar, however. So he's a fat nerdy guy, but it's a pretty stock character. Ignatius J.Reilly was funnier and more "fleshed out." (sorry)

A good read, but a prize winner? I'm not so sure.
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LibraryThing member Lisa2013
This is a superbly crafted story. Beautiful (Spanglish) language, wonderful flow, fascinating back and forth inter-generational tale, really it could be considered an epic. But I cannot give it 5 stars because the why of the end just infuriated me. Also, it was so very sad and so incredibly violent. I’m really surprised that none of the many Goodreads friends and other Goodreads members who have given it superlative reviews and mostly 5 and some 4 star ratings have mentioned how disturbing this book is, at least not enough in my view. Maybe it wasn’t at all traumatizing for them but much of the story was exceedingly unpleasant for me. The reader is continually prepared for the worst of events to come, but it didn’t minimize the impact of all that happened. In my opinion, this could be considered a definitive novel about the Dominican Republic and its history and culture. Reading it did make me sufficiently curious that before I finished reading I researched some information about this place. This novel is well worth reading and I’m glad I did, but it was not always an enjoyable experience. I’ll have to see whether or not this story and its many characters make a lasting impression on me.… (more)
LibraryThing member JCO123
Recommended by Militza. Very strange book about a nerd. Why would anyone want to read about a nerd? It was very difficult to read because one expects the nerd to snap out of it and have something good happen, but in the end he gets killed after he finally gets laid. WTF? Again, why would this be interesting?
LibraryThing member kvanuska
Cursed Natives
By Karen Vanuska

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
By Junot Díaz

“Haitians and Cubans washed up on the shores of Florida.” “Chinese illegal aliens washed up on the shores of New York.” A Google search for the phrase immigrants washed up on our shores confirms how frequently journalists and politicians rely on this clichéd image. Immigrants as sea trash? Not possible. Junot Díaz’s debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao promises to vanquish this image.

Eleven years ago, Díaz’s story collection, Drown, debuted to great acclaim. Its stories seethe with memorable characters who struggle with the pain of separation from family and their native country, the Dominican Republic. Dominican Spanish words and phrases peppered throughout the narratives ground the characters in their heritage while the Northern New Jersey setting works like sandpaper to re-shape their Dominican edges into something more American.

This month, Díaz debuts his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and returns to his earlier theme of identity in the face of diaspora. In Drown the setting of the Dominican Republic works like a veil that filters the light that blazes through each story. In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, however, the Dominican Republic becomes a full-blown, brutal and vivid character. To achieve this character-building, the novel’s acerbic narrator uses footnotes filled with colorful language and historical anecdotes: “For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history: Trujillo, one of the twentieth century’s most infamous dictators, ruled the Dominican Republic between 1930 and 1961 with an implacable brutality.” Resist the urge to skip the footnotes and run to Wikipedia; these footnotes exude history, violence and drama worthy of Shakespeare.

The character Yunior returns from Drown to narrate The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He’s now an adult with a job and a family. His voice alternates between rage and sadness over the curse -- the fukú -- that has forced Dominican families like his and Oscar’s to abandon the Dominican Republic and seek refuge in New Jersey. In the novel’s prologue, Yunior describes the fukú: “… it is believed that the arrival of Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fukú on the world, and we’ve all been in the shit ever since.” When we first read these lines, Yunior’s identity has not yet been revealed. Halfway through the novel, he finally emerges from behind the curtain and joins the action with Oscar and his sister Lola at Rutgers.

Yunior’s dramatic entrance is a momentary distraction from Oscar’s story. Yunior’s guilt, sadness and anger threaten to overshadow Oscar’s poignant search for love. Also, Yunior’s reappearance makes it tempting to return to Drown and search for Oscar. Is he there and we just missed him? If so, would we learn something vital about him? While Oscar’s sister Lola is briefly mentioned in the story “Boyfriend” as “a black chick who spent three years in Italy” there is no sign of Oscar. Yunior’s dramatic reappearance might encourage some readers of Drown to connect the dots more than they should.

During a drunken college Halloween celebration, Yunior and his friends tell Oscar that his Doctor Who costume makes him look like Oscar Wild. The name Wild is slurred and Oscar de Léon becomes Oscar Wao. Oscar is a New Jersey born Dominican GhettoNerd -- a fat, fantasy/sci-fi addict who is always reading, writing or playing video games. He is also a GhettoNerd who has been desperate for the love of a woman since age seven. His search for love becomes his tragic undoing before he has a chance to turn thirty. His family’s history is littered with stories of brutal beatings suffered for love. Where Yunior fears the fukú of Oscar’s family, Oscar dismisses it. Yunior believes this dismissal is Oscar’s undoing, but is it?

The fractured structure of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao repeatedly takes the reader two steps forward into Oscar’s biography, then one step backward into the biography of his mother, Belicia Cabral, and his grandfather, Abelard Cabral. Each of these three stories culminates in a brutal beating that changes the shape of their lives. Yunior believes that Abelard brought the fukú down on the Cabral family when he defied the Dominican genocidal dictator Trujillo; Trujillo’s very legacy was one big fukú for the entire country, responsible for the diaspora of its citizens that continues today. Belicia continued the fukú because she happened to fall in love with a gangster married to Trujillo’s sister. By Yunior’s way of thinking, when Oscar falls in love with a woman whose boyfriend is a corrupt policeman during a trip to the Dominican Republic, he’s destined to become another of the fukú’s victims.

The structure of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao stumbles with the abrupt shift in narration from Yunior to Oscar’s sister, Lola. Lola’s story -- strong, compelling, artfully composed -- appeared in this summer’s fiction issue of The New Yorker. The resemblance of Lola’s voice to Yunior’s causes initial confusion, but details eventually reveal Lola’s identity. As compelling as her story is, its presence sacrifices Oscar and the family’s fukú by leaving them on such a distant sideline that they are barely recognizable. Unlike Oscar, Belicia and Abelard, Lola does not become a fukú victim and instead, while visiting the Dominican Republic, actually achieves a short story-style redemption. This contradiction defies Yunior’s fukú theory and seems to set up a false hope for Oscar’s redemption. Or perhaps the message we are supposed to take away is that it’s not always bad to return to one’s native land? Lola’s story muddies the novel’s waters. The much stronger possibility for Oscar’s redemption is that his mother survives the cane field beating she received on orders from her lover’s wife, immigrates to New Jersey, and starts life anew. She survives the fukú to become a woman with a foot in each country, but belonging to none. A curse of a different color? Belicia’s story speaks to this novel’s soul.

Fiction needs an Oscar Wao. We need a GhettoNerd of heroic proportions who will fight the noble battle for love. Oscar could have chosen to leave the Dominican Republic and follow his mother’s flight to America to live a loveless life. Instead, he chooses to keep his feet firmly planted in that Dominican cane field. Facing the fukú for love is an honorable fight for an honorable man in a time that sees few acts of self-sacrifice. Yunior, Lola and Belicia might be the novel’s survivors, but the mantle of survivor’s guilt burdens them with misshapen identities. Fukús might be powerful, Yunior, but Oscar proves that they don’t have to be masters of our choices.

Fiction needs Junot Díaz. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a novel whose arrival should be celebrated. Too many of us haven’t had our requisite two seconds of Dominican history. Too many of us need to be reminded that we have family trees full of immigrants who came to this country with more stories of oppression than luggage. Junot Díaz gives a voice to sea trash and it’s a voice we should listen to if we want to remain worthy of having Lady Liberty at our country’s gateway.
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LibraryThing member sarah-e
I had some initial problems - it was hard for me to get into this book because it so strongly reflects Dominican culture, which I know nothing about. The culture expressed became one of my favorite aspects of the story because it gave me insight to a country I had never thought much about. I wondered when I started the book if I needed a Spanish dictionary to help me through it, but I think the separation we readers feel because of the language and the culture differences mimics Oscar's struggle to fit in and find his place in cultures and communities where he is always a little different.

Oscar's story is rooted in a curse from the Trujillo regime that reaches through his grandparents and mother to Oscar and his sister. The story of the curse is told through the history of the DR, and Oscar's own story reflects his personal history with women. Oscar is sometimes funny, sometimes creepy, and reminded me of people I know and of myself. I finished this book at night, and struggled to make peace with it before falling asleep. It reached into my dreams, and when I woke I understood it. For me, the language was too rough, the Spanish went over my head, and Oscar's heartbreaking struggle was just plain sad, but it was all worth it, all amazing.
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LibraryThing member dukedom_enough
One reason to read novels is to glimpse worlds different from our own. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao presents two such worlds. Oscar de Leon's family is from the Dominican Republic, ruled 1930-1961 by the brutal dictator Trujillo - like much other history, a world not generally well known in the US. Oscar, raised in New Jersey, grows up as much Nerd as Dominican, loving science fiction, fantasy, comics, and gaming - a world perhaps somewhat better known. A proper nerd, he has zero success with women, in contrast with typical, male Dominican sexual charm.

The novel is as much the story of his family - especially his sister and mother - as of Oscar himself. A small act of defiance leads to Oscar's grandparents' ruin, and the family's subsequent, recurring ill fortune is ascribed to a curse placed on them by Trujillo, a curse that Oscar must encounter in his turn. The misfortunes of three generations make for a compelling story. The possibility of a curse puts the novel into the magical-realist realm, though one is never sure. The Dominican world, both on the Island and in its US diaspora, is interestingly presented and explained.

Explained often, but not always; many bits of Oscar's two worlds are not translated for us. The novel is in English, but numerous words, phrases and, sometimes, sentences in Dominican Spanish appear without translation. The online Spanish-to-English dictionaries I consulted did not have a translation for many of these. Similarly, Diaz uses geeky allusions, metaphors and similes throughout, without explanation. The meanings of these bits of nerdspeak are usually reasonably clear from context, but even this longtime SF reader - perfectly able to "differentiate between a Slan, a Dorsai, and a Lensman" - had to resort to Internet searches at many points. The pattern is established early on, when an elementary-school contemporary of Oscar's is said to be "so pretty she could have played young Dejah Thoris". It's clear that the reference is meant to be a superlative, but Google can't supply nonreaders of SF with the sort of emotional resonance - Dejah Thoris doubtless has figured in many geeky, adolescent-male fantasies over the past century - that they might have for a more widely known example.

We have, then, a novel the general story of which is clear, but with numerous parts that require research; this book might not have been entirely readable before the era of online search. Few readers besides (I presume) Junot Diaz can feel all these allusions, and the Spanish segments, with the same conviction he does. Wondering why, I speculate that Diaz is aiming at emphasizing a disconnect between what we know and what we should know.

Is "our" - most readers' - ignorance of the fine points of the geek world an ironic echo of our - certainly mine, and I think most US citizens' - ignorance of the Trujillo years and ongoing Dominican problems? It's no great issue that we might not know who Darkseid is, but a scandal that we don't know about Jesus de Galindez. Oscar does not get to escape history; we comfortable Americans often do. If we care about literature of the fantastic, then which is more fantastic, the green warriors and beautiful women of John Carter's dying Mars or the surreal Trujillo dictatorship and the diaspora from a living island? The Burroughs novels might well be better known than the Dominican history. This irony has been noted before, but it's one we ought not to forget.
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LibraryThing member lriley
Though it may fall short of masterpiece status--for first novels over the last decade or so it is hard to beat this one. Looking above already 74 other reviews. I really don't think I need to go into too much detail here. If one wants one has those other reviews that one can sift through for more information on the book. There's no point in my being redundant here.

To comment though on Diaz's writing--this book is more or less written as a narrative and in a vernacular form. Diaz makes a positive out of using his English/Spanish multi-lingualism by teasing the reader along. Stylistically--it's a very effective device in capable hands and Junot is easily that. As well he is a natural at storytelling and he has a hell of a story to tell us about--particularly the history of the Dominican Republic during the Trujillo dictatorship.

One thing--as I said I think it falls just a little short of being a masterpiece. It is however a book I can see myself re-reading--but I think as well that Diaz has the talent to do even better and that is something we should all hope for and look forward to in the coming years.
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LibraryThing member heycaye
People will either find this book awesome, or awful.

Me? I loved it.

I love Junot Diaz's narrative. I think our senses of humor lie on the same page, except his are darker and ten times funnier. But I get him. I've never read an author who narrates half as amusing as he does.

The story was well-crafted. Come on, it spanned a few decades. It even featured a historical era (now this part, I don't know if it's nonfictional. I'll look it up some time) starring the dictator Trujillo. (Side note: this era reminds me of the Philippines' Spanish colonial period, and Marcos' twenty-year reign, so I can understand and really relate well)

But what never changed through each generation of Cabrals is how the characters loved. Which is beyond foolishness, since it got them screwed by the fuku, aka the Dark Curse or the Doom-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named.

The story is intricate, yes, but the consequence is I kept looking for more Oscar Wao. I don't think this should be entitled The Brief Life of Oscar Wao, rather How the Fuku Screwed Three Generations of Cabrals. Not that I didn't like Beli's, or Lola's stories, don't get me wrong. They were all rebellious and adventurous and I like that. But I was misled.

I like Oscar. And he made me realize that if nerdery was an ocean, then he was scuba-diving in it while I, I've barely touched the surface. Damn. And here I thought I was a nerd…I don't deserve the title after all.

Another thing with this book is I never know who is narrating. I guess that's part of the charm, too. I only realized who was narrating the most part when I got to the very end. And I was like "Whoaaaaa, okay." It was one of those Eureka moments.

Of course you know what happens in the end. The title hints it. Don't worry, it's not a depressing ending. I was actually happy at the very end… ah, just READ IT. :)

P.S. Keep a Spanish-English dictionary (if you're old-fashioned) or Google Translate near you. There are a lot of Spanish thrown in there. I didn't follow this, personally, so I had to depend on what little Spanish I know. (And this is the only time I'm to credit the 333-year Spanish reign in the Philippines— I at least understood 20% of what they're saying mostly because some Spanish are incorporated in our own language)
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LibraryThing member paperhouses
Brilliant, just fucking spot-on brilliant. I loved it. Cannot effuse enough. Have to drag out the copy of "Drown" I somewhere own and had left unread. Junot Diaz, you are my hero. I hope you are off somewhere writing your next book very quickly.
LibraryThing member catzkc
I really need to stay away from books that have won awards (with one exception, the Ellis Peters Award). It's a sure-fire way I'll hate the book.

My Book Club picked this out and it's the only reason I persevered.
LibraryThing member lyzadanger
This is not a novel about a fat kid named Oscar. Maybe, but barely, if so. It is instead a story of the people and events surrounding him, making a hole in the world shaped like him. It's a telling of him by way of that which surrounds him, of things orbiting him--appropriate for someone whose girth at one point gets compared to a planet.

It is appropriate, then, that the central theme of the novel is "fuku", a Greater Antilles version of a family-wide curse. It is not a personal hex, but one that spans generations, one of mythical, communal proportion, likened to the curse on the House of Atreus. It's triggered by love. Love drives Oscar's Dominican mother, sister, grandparents, great-aunt to the brink of their lives.

Junot Diaz tells this epic in breathless fits of smart-mouthed momentum, peppered with science fiction references, humor, and David Foster Wallace-esque footnotes. These footnotes provide smart dosages of brutal Dominican history. Shameful ones: though I could likely have pointed the country out on a map before, I feel bereft that I didn't know about the dictatorships, the repression, the violence. Now in 1950s Dominican Republic, now in 1990s New Jersey, Diaz keeps the setting leaping between intertwined meanings.

Our narrator is at first an observer, but quietly grows and grows until you realize that the novel might be about him, too. Yunior--that's all we get for a name--is a hoplessly-philandering, confident, self-described typical Dominican, good (too good) with the ladies, bound to his heritage. Initially derisive of Oscar, he is practically prostrate to him in retrospection. Then one starts wondering. It's Oscar who is supposed to be the sci-fi dork, so why is Yunior describing things himself in such sci-fi terms? The notion is Oscar's but the voice is Yunior's. Oscar's sister Lola, who shares the burden of first-person narrator for some time, has her own voice. It's Yunior's whose seems inextricable from Oscar's. How did they cross-pollinate? Are they two halves of some cosmic whole?

Diaz's bantery cleverness is balanced by the gravitas of the decades of violent regime in the Dominican Republic, protecting the story from floating off, insubstantial, even in its most snarky moments. The magical symbols the characters experience right before their greatest perils (a golden-eyed mongoose, a terrifying faceless man) bind them harder to each other and their common fates.
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LibraryThing member kmaziarz
Oscar, nicknamed Oscar Wao as a play on Oscar Wilde, is an overweight, sci-fi and fantasy obsessed, virginal, Dominican nerd. Coming from mixed-race roots and being a first-generation American on top of his nerdiness, poor Oscar is an outcast and loner in every group to which he could lay some claim. He comes of age awkwardly, falling in love deeply, desperately, repeatedly, and fruitlessly, his loyalties torn between his strong-willed sister and his fire-breathing mother.

With chapters devoted to the life of his loving grandmother, the traumas and triumphs of his mother’s childhood in the Dominican Republic, and his sister’s adolescence under the thumb of their horrifically overbearing mother, this is more than just the story of one awkward boy growing into an awkward young man. It is, instead, a multigenerational tale demonstrating with clever, often acidly biting, humor and wisdom how the entire history of a people or a family influences the identity of each individual within it.
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LibraryThing member myrialadel
Wow. This book was just that. It was funny, but had deep underlying conflicts within that exposed the chracters for what they truly were--their darkest motives and times, but also the good in them. This book was a very realistic depiction of life and all its flaws and hardship and unpredictability. A truly spectactular work.… (more)
LibraryThing member mthelibrarian
I was gripped by page 2 of the book by the notion that John F. Kennedy's foreign policy maneuvers in the Dominican Republic were permanent curses on the family and doomed him to assassination. Though I struggled with the large amounts of Spanish woven into the text, I felt it lended it authenticity and a sense of being outside the United States. I especially enjoyed the ending and last 50 pages or so. From the title of the book I knew the ending, but it was later in Oscar's life than I expected. Since "In the Time of the Butterflies" by Julia Alvarez is one of my all-time favorite books, I was interested in the several references to the Mirabal sisters as well as the Vargas Llosa novel also addressing facets of the Trujillo regime. I noted some of the movie and comics references and loved a Dominican Republic writer's insight into American culture. I found the footnotes informative and worthwhile, and recommend a print copy of the book rather than an e-book so that these can be read easily rather than as e-endnotes.… (more)
LibraryThing member Dorritt
This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. Having said that, have to admit: this is both a fabulous and wrenchingly difficult read. Others have addressed the plot, so thought I'd go straight to what makes this book so complex, and so worthwhile.

What makes the book amazing: Diaz's totally unique, totally enthralling first person narration (the story is related by the Dominican "player" boyfriend of Oscar's sister Lola), combining Dominican history, ethnic references, Jersey street slang, vulgarity, scifi/fantasy nerd references, honesty, humility and compassion to create a narrative voice unlike anything I've ever encountered in fiction. In a world full of quality literature, Junot Diaz deserves major props for creating something completely new and utterly compelling.

Unfortunately, this is also what makes the story's plot so wrenching to endure. If the characters weren't so unbearably real, so deeply sympathetic, then perhaps it wouldn't hurt so much to watch them line up, one after the other (first Dr. Abelard Luis Cabral, then his daughter Beli, then her son Oscar....), hell-bent on risking everything for love, only to endure heartbreaking loss and increasingly horrific consequences.

The central question of the novel seems to be: how is one's destiny determined? Is it determined by supernatural forces: fate, God, fuku (the Dominican equivalent of a curse)? Or can you shape fate by your own actions? Or - a terrifying but inescapable possibility - is one's destiny a complete crapshoot? I won't give away the ending, except to provide a little reassurance for prospective readers, for what it's worth: surely an author with as much compassion for his characters as Junot Diaz would never posit a world entirely bereft of hope.
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LibraryThing member bhenry11
It's not too often that a book elicits a primal response from me, but I flat-out sobbed at the end. Oscar is tragic in the way that so many of us are: we want to be flawless, but also often can't even fail correctly. We want to be heroic, but instead brood alone in our pride, stuck in our own social anxieties and hangups. We don't conform to how the rest of society wants us to be, but we also can't figure out why we're not universally loved and accepted.

Diaz' novel excels not just in its parallel construction between Oscar's mother's Trujillo-dominated past and Oscar's ill-fitting present, but in the seamless integration of the two at the story's climax. Just a great read.
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LibraryThing member nbarman
This book accomplishes a lot. It's funny, it has a voice (and a witty one at that), it tells an important history of the Trujillo-era Dominican Republic, it's a coming of age novel and it has memorable characters. More than anything, I enjoyed the history lesson given in such colloquial delivery. It's a haunting history, and Diaz's characters - both those born during and after Trujillo's regime, are caught in the lingering terror. I can see why this book won the Pulitzer and would recommend it as a good read. It did feel a bit long and I was waiting to finish it.… (more)
LibraryThing member iluvvideo
I really enjoyed this book.

It tells the story of Oscar de Leon (nicknamed Oscar Wao in reference to Oscar Wilde). He sees himself as the antithesis of what a Dominican male should be. Overweight, bookish, SF movie watching, journal writing , and worst of all NO luck with the ladies. His story is told from several points of view (his own, his sister Lola, his friend Yunior, and other family members).

They take us on a journey through Oscar's life, and also through the birth and reasons behind the family fuku (bad karma) that flows through every action and possible outcome, predetermining the worst outcome. You get a up close look at the Dominican Republic's history especially the era of the dictator Trujillo, a regime as oppressive as any dictator in history, that operated for over 40 years in obscurity to the outside world, but with devastating consequence to the people, including Oscar and his family.

The characters are believable, neither glorified nor reviled, just trying to survive. They leave the Dominican and immigrate to Nuevo Yol in search of freedom and a better life. But what can be done with the ever present fuku? It seems you cannot escape!

I found Oscar and his family's story fascinating. Each generations struggle to escape the repressive situation in which they live and struggle toward a better life. Oscar struggles to become a man and find love and happiness in his life. Will he succeed? Read and find out!
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LibraryThing member dczapka
When I first heard of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, it was accompanied with substantial acclaim and rave reviews. I've become accustomed over time to taking such wildly enthusiastic reviews with a grain of salt (see, for instance, my experience with the critically acclaimed, and also Pulitzer Prize-winning, The Road), but I'm here to say, unequivocally, that this book is the real deal. Junot Díaz has crafted a marvelous, affecting tale that is complex, compulsively readable, and utterly unforgettable.

The structure of the story is perhaps the most surprising, as it progresses roughly backwards through the generations of the de Leon family, beginning with the overweight sci-fi dork Oscar and his punky runaway sister Lola, then examining the lives of his mother Hypatia and grandfather Abelard. Each section is an engaging and isolated tale in its own right, a nod to Díaz's training as a short story writer, but they are interconnected by the "fukú," a curse that has plagued the family for generations. The more Oscar learns about the fukú, the more convinced he becomes that he must be the one to rid the family of the curse.

The novel is unquestionably driven by its characters, figures that feel as complex and engaging as their multidimensional (and multicultural) backgrounds. Oscar is as much the fat kid as he is the prototypical Dominican, as much a part of the Caribbean as he is a part of Paterson and of New Jersey at large. Lola and Hypatia too become increasingly fascinating because we first see them through the eyes of Oscar and the occasional narrator Yunior, who dates Lola and befriends Oscar at Rutgers, but get an intense taste of their own histories in their own words. Though the main cast is relatively small, each member makes a huge impact.

Díaz's style too is as remarkable as his characterization. He proves himself as adept and comfortable riffing on history as he does talking science fiction. His voice fluctuates with his narrators effortlessly, giving each an even more distinct personality. But at the core of the novel, hidden away deftly in the copious footnotes, is the voice of Díaz himself, who casually and abrasively dismisses the actions of the horrid Dominican dictator Trujillo as if he were a common Paterson street thug. It is a dangerous but calculated move, executed brilliantly and resulting in a novel that is easily readable due to its casual tone, but never once leaves you in doubt of the author's vast intellect.

What is truly put on display here is a voice that is exceedingly confident and ready to tell a story that he knows you're going to love. And sure enough, Díaz has us laughing and crying at the precise moments he wants us to, leaving us with a closing set of chapters that are utterly haunting, as beautifully brilliant as the start of the novel is hysterical. Junot Díaz has proven that he is a force to be reckoned with in contemporary fiction, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is proof that his next work cannot come soon enough.
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LibraryThing member omphalos02
Not that Diaz isn't a good writer, but I found myself unable to finish this book because it is literally packed with Spanish words & phrases with no translation at all. And Diaz is not afraid of the footnote, there are plenty, but these offer only background and history of the Dominican Republic and it's people. So what could be a good story is greatly weakened by its author's irresponsibility to his readers.… (more)
LibraryThing member Lexicographer
Much to my surprise, I am not geeky enough to get this book. I mean, I get it. I enjoyed it. But I got lost in the references to nerdy delights, and even more lost in the Spanish passages. I think that maybe those things stood in my way of loving the book more, because sometimes I would be really, deeply, truly involved and only to be pulled away from the moment by a reference that left me wondering if I wanted to look it up. Diaz's form and style is awe-inspiringly original and if that were all the book had to offer, it would be worth picking up. Many incidental stories told here also seem new, even if the titular Oscar's tale seemed a little predictable amid all the innovation.… (more)
LibraryThing member GingerbreadMan
This looked really promising at first. An epic drawing bridges from the oppressed pueblo of the Dominican Republic to a non-existing love life in New Jersey, written in a funny, fast, smartmouthed kind of way, peppered with references to role playing games, super hero comics and sci-fi. And on top of that providing fascinating insight about life under the überdictatorship of "Caribbean Sauron" Trujillo.

But this tale of a fukú, a curse affecting a family for several generations, is just too thematically loose to work as a novel. About two thirds in I felt my interest with the people in the story's present crumbling. I was still drawn into the stories of the earlier generations, set in Dominican Republic, but Oscar as a character for me became vaguer and vaguer. His sister Lola even more so. And most of all Yunior, the book's ever present narrator, whom we learn so little about he becomes an irritation.

As Oscar finally bets all on his deathbound love, to remedy the fukú, I'm already a tad bored and don't really get affected. Which is a shame, because there's so much good stuff here. With just a little more attention paid to arcs and orchestration, this could have been a much better book. As it is now, it's merely alright.
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LibraryThing member delirium
bout once a year, I read a book that stands head and shoulders above the other 40-50 books I read that year. The book that leaves me wishing there was a six star category. Oscar Wao is my Book of the Year. It has the world wisdom and mastery of language found in many works written by and about a culture that has known oppression. Its conversational tone and use of contemporary slang soften some of the gravity of its content, making it less daunting than much of the Latin American cannon. Moreover, when making profound points, the author often references works dear to the nerd culture of my generation, like the Matrix and Watchmen. An outstanding piece of literature, and one you don’t need a background in 20th century literature or history to appreciate.… (more)



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