The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Author: Junot Díaz

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2008

I read it: February 2017


Oscar Wao’s family is cursed. Or at least that’s one hypothesis put forward by our nameless narrator (we do figure out who it is by the end). Oscar lives in New Jersey but his mother is from the Dominican Republic, where she was “a teenage girl living in the Dominican Republic of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, the Dictatingist Dictator who ever Dictated.” A lot of the book covers a few decades of Dominican politics and living under fear of an ultra-violent government. No wonder, then, that old superstitions remain. Specifically, there might be a “fukú” on the Wao clan.

But “Wao” is not really their last name, as we learn. It comes from a deviation of “Oscar Wilde,” just one of many pop culture references that give the book flavor. Oscar is a big 80s nerd, into the type of stuff that might be cool now but made him a hardcore outcast then. Add in his weight problem and he’s a lovesick person who is perpetually alone. All he wants is a girlfriend: “to him they were the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, the DC and the Marvel.”

The story isn’t all Oscar’s, and it’s refreshing to switch perspectives to Lola (his sister), Beli (his mother), and Abelard (his grandfather). The latter two suffer horrendously under the dictatorial regime, and Abelard’s story in particular reminded me of the character of Doremus Jessup from It Can’t Happen Here. When Abelard is finally imprisoned, the narrator wonders how to explain the reasons for the event:

So which was it? you ask. An accident, a conspiracy, or a fukú? The only answer I can give you is the least satisfying: you’ll have to decide for yourself. What’s certain is that nothing’s certain. We are trawling in silences here.

The frustrations suffered by the characters are many, and the way the culture affects the family members as the generations unfold has a lot of similarity to The God of Small Things. In the way that that book attempts to capture a crucial essence of Indian upbringing, Díaz’s novel does the same for the Dominican Republic. It’s partially a story of immigrants, of “many waters waiting to become a river.”

And it’s heartbreakingly the story of Oscar Wao. My basic knowledge of Spanish and The Lord of the Rings helped keep things fluid while reading, although at other times the intensity of the page made me want to turn away. And whenever uncertainty arose the narrator was there to remind me: “But hey, it’s only a story, with no solid evidence, the kind of shit only a nerd could love.”

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