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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The novel follows the life and times of a Dominican-American family: the beautiful and fierce mother, Belicia, the smart, intensely-driven daughter, Lola, and Oscar, an obese sci-fi/fantasy-loving nerd who is unlucky in love. A history of family misfortunes and tragedies leads the family to believe they are haunted by an ancient curse or fukú. As one may expect from the title, Oscar is the main focus of the story, but each of the three main characters, as well as other members of the family, have chapters detailing their own story. We watch as each character struggles to find their own answer to the fukú, all of them seemingly unsuccessful and doomed to misfortune.
The question eventually arises, though, in the novel: can love overcome tragedy? Does embracing love so intensely in the face of peril speak only of the tragedy or of something else transcendent? We only have to envision the Christian crucifix to comprehend the import of this question. But this is also what makes “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” so human and transcendent.
Díaz writes with a manic energy that imbues the story with a vast amount of life and heart. Passion flows from the pages like happy waves lapping against the reader. The characterizations, particularly of Oscar, are vivid and brilliant. Díaz lays his characters out fully open in front of us with all their flaws exposed, and eventually, this honesty charmed me, leading me to embrace these wonderful characters. I loved them for their honesty, love and passion.
It is a rare thing when a novel can truly capture a transcendent emotion like love, lay it out, and enrich everyone who reads about it. Junot Díaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is such a novel, and deserves to be celebrated and recognized as a great American literary treasure.
I quite liked this book. I think that, perhaps, if I had come upon it by chance in a neglected corner of a bookshop and read it without any preconceptions, I would have really liked it. But I did have preconceptions. A couple of years ago this was a hot book, recommended in all the end-of-year newspaper reviews, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, winner of the American National Book Critics Circle Award. I was expecting something “Astoundingly great” (Time), “Technical breathtaking” (Time Out), “A triumph of style and wit” (San Francisco Chronicle) or “A masterpiece” (The Times).
After all that, quite liking it felt like an anti-climax.
The life of Oscar Wao is even briefer than the title would have you believe, because about half of the book or perhaps even more is devoted to the story of Oscar’s mother and grandparents in the Dominican Republic. This is a good thing – those parts of the book I really liked, as they dealt really well with life under the Trujillo dictatorship and the complex choices people faced to try to survive. In fact, I would have preferred a novel based only in the Dominican Republic, only covering those earlier generations.
With the introduction of Oscar, though, the book becomes something more familiar to publishers, booksellers and readers alike: an immigrant family saga. Oscar is a nerdy adolescent, overweight, hopeless with girls, into fantasy and role-playing, and with strange, C3PO-like speech patterns. We follow him around the malls of New Jersey, watching him being humiliated in various ways, and then he goes back to the Dominican Republic and some fairly unbelievable stuff happens which... well, I won’t give away the ending, but the title of the book should give you a clue. Oscar never felt as real to me as the characters in the historical section of the book, and ultimately I didn’t really care that his life was brief. I felt much more empathy for his grandfather and the impossible balance he tries to strike between protecting his daughter from Trujillo and protecting himself.
The narrative style is energetic and interesting, effortlessly mixing colloquial and poetic until you don’t know which is which any more. It kept me reading even through the parts I wasn’t that interested in, and in the historical sections it really soars. So overall a good book and one that I am glad I read – just wish I hadn’t approached it with such impossibly high expectations.
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.
I keep reading blogs and comment chains complaining about how this book contains some words in Spanish. This apparently makes some people sad. Some people apparently don't understand how to use the Internet to figure out the meaning of Spanish words, or better yet, how to use context clues to figure out what words mean. It's OK to think a little when you read. It often makes books better. Junot Diaz is the man, man.
The book is filled with references and allusions I didn't understand (I did look many of them up and still didn't understand [what's with Joseph Conrad's wife?]) The language is raw, the story is filled with brutality, yet it glitters with humor, insight, and love. It's not for everyone, but I, for one, am glad I read it.
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.
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.