Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

oscarwaoImagine my surprise when I was settling in for a read of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to find Spanish words with no translations, a lack of distinct speech marks, and half a page worth of footnotes… historical footnotes about Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship from page 2. I panicked, thought This isn’t what I signed up for. If I’d been a lesser person (which most times I am) I would have put the book aside for another day (never), but what I’ve learned from my recent turns in different genres/authors is that the weird usually are the most rewarding – and this story definitely lived up to this.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was written by Junot Diaz and originally published in The New York Times as a short story before 300 or so additional pages of plot were written for the full length novel. The De Leon family is cursed with extreme bad luck (fuku) that follows them from Santo Domingo to the US and back again with Oscar at the helm of the story. He’s an overweight ghetto nerd who dreams of becoming the next “Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien” and loves hard where love avoid him like the plague. A 23 year old sci fi loving virgin who “could tell you the difference between a Veritech fighter and a Zentraedi walker”, mama’s boy, and permanent resident of the friendzone. Oscar’s personal fuku is that he desperately wants to find love but has the social skills and physique of a potato. An unknown narrator is relentless in exposing Oscar’s shortcomings one awkward encounter, friendzoning, and barely stifled laugh after another.

“Perhaps if like me he’d been able to hide his otakuness maybe shit would have been easier for him, but he couldn’t. Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he wanted to.”

The unknown narrator, an obvious ladies man as he goes on to tell us how much he loves jumping from one pussy to another, is (if we can go back to high school literature for a moment) Oscar’s foil. He excels where Oscar fails; he’s better looking, funnier, a better writer, no doubt he’s has slept with more women than Oscar ever will. And even though some of this can read like useless kissing and telling, it all builds upon Oscar’s image as the A-Typical Dominican Male, and when the narrator finally reveals himself the reader is left thinking That’s who’s left to tell Oscar’s story? Just another layer of salt in Oscar’s wounds.

Junot Diaz is brilliant at selling you one thing and giving you a healthy amount of ‘other’ in terms of plot and subplot. The story is supposed to be about Oscar’s wondrous life and the first fifty pages break down his character with interesting detail but afterwards the reader is pulled through over a hundred pages that (at first) seem to have nothing to do with Oscar. Again, I thought, I didn’t sign up for this! but continued through it for multiple reasons; 1. Junot Diaz’s writing style is hilarious. 2. There was a good amount of sci fi jargon. This pleases me. 3. Curiosity would not let me put the book down until the narrator revealed himself to me. 4. I was still having fun learning about the different ways the fuku had it’s way with each family member; Oscar’s rebellious sister Lola, their embittered mother Beli, and her father Abelard – the first to feel the full force of the fuku, losing his reputation and livelihood during Trujillo’s dictatorship.

This is where Diaz may have lost some readers, but it is impossible to appreciate Oscar’s story without learning about the events that happened before and around him. To understand the nuances of Beli and Lola’s turbulent and often violent relationship we first need to learn how similar the two are. We need to know about Beli’s gruesome childhood, her lost loves, her brush with death because of her third and final lover simply named the Gangster. To understand how Beli’s path was set in stone we first need to learn about her father’s life, status, and circumstances that led to the fuku first touching the family. Only then does Oscar’s wondrous life make sense, and the dovetailing that comes later makes all of this worth it.

The main negative I found in this book echo a lot of what Roxane Gay had to say about the book in Bad Feminist. Junot Diaz, like Oscar, is originally from the Dominican Republic and moved to Jersey, they are both writers and fans of science fiction. He clearly writes what he knows, and although this works really well for the most part there were times I found it jarring. The image of the Average Dominican Male that shows throughout the story is obsessed with breasts, women, and other women – whether this is a huge exaggeration or not does not bother me as much as how tedious this became the more I saw it throughout the plot. Beli is head over heels with her Gangster but he barely looks up from her breasts when they are in each other’s company. Lola is in love with a man who seems physically incapable of not sleeping with other women. Even Oscar’s close calls to relationships come down to whether he is finally going to get laid or not.

Despite that drawback Diaz has a way of adding layer upon layer to his characters until you root for them, care about the choices they make, care whether they live or die. These characters are palpable, despicable, understandable, and grow more life with every line that details their actions and motivations behind them.  For the less patient reader this could have been tedious or seen as a bloated version of the original short story, but if you’re willing hear the family’s story before going on to Oscar’s brief and wondrous life you’ll find the journey is worth the ride.