Review of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: A Novel” by Junot Díaz

Oscar de León (nicknamed Oscar Wao) is an overweight Dominican growing up in Paterson, New Jersey. Oscar desperately wants to be successful with women and fears he will die a virgin. This is especially important because of the male-dominated, swaggering, machismo culture of Santo Domingo and its diaspora, a culture that valorizes – by both men and women alike – sexual use and abuse of women. Díaz provides readers with a full panoply of profane and disrespectful Spanish names for women generally and for female genitalia in particular.

Díaz begins his story by explaining the nature of Fukú, which is “the Curse and Doom of the New World” brought into Dominican culture by the arrival of Columbus. [Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic, is the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in the Americas, having been founded in 1498 by Bartholomew Columbus, brother of Christopher.]

Interspersing the history of Santo Domingo into his story mostly via detailed footnotes, Díaz delineates the subsequent bad things that happened in the country, most recently with the brutal dictatorship of Trujillo (who ruled the Dominican Republic from February 1930 until his assassination in May 1961) – a horrible (and true) story.

And how does Oscar Wao fit into all of this? His life story was related to the history of Trujillo, and showed how powerful the Fukú was, “down to the seventh generation and beyond.”

About Oscar, the narrator explains:

“Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everybody’s always going on about – he wasn’t no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock.”

In this one sentence you can see a prominent characteristic of this story: argot that mixes English, Dominican Spanish, and ghetto language. Because Oscar is also a science fiction and gaming nerd (where in his own mind he can be a Superhero), Díaz also includes a lot of esoteric references to that world as well. Díaz rarely explains his words, although usually you can figure them out from the context. But about half-way through the book, I found a website that provides an annotated version of the book, and it was a great help.

The story goes back and forth in time to demonstrate the effects of Fukú on Oscar’s family, and takes us from Santo Domingo to New Jersey and back, as many of the Dominicans in America return to the island in the summers.

Over the course of the years and his travels, Oscar gains more and more weight, becomes increasingly introverted, falls in love with more and more women, and has success with exactly none of them. When Oscar was in college, the main narrator, who is the sometime-boyfriend of Oscar’s beautiful sister Lola – tried to help him lose weight but Oscar was more comfortable with wallowing and day-dreaming.

As we come to the end of Oscar’s story (was all of the ending real? I have no idea) – and the conclusion of the book — I found myself singularly unmoved by anything except relief to be finished.

Discussion: I never felt close to any of the protagonists, although I couldn’t swear the fault was not my own; this culture and the characters depicted in it are not only very alien to me, but the attitudes toward and treatment of women is anathema to me. Even Oscar, harmless except for his intentions and depressed because he couldn’t bed many girls like every other male he knew, did not elicit sympathy in me. Nor did his family, who advised Oscar, in Spanish: If a girl doesn’t seem to like you, grab her “and stick it in her!”

There is also some superstition and magic thrown in, although those elements never take over the story.

Díaz is clearly an intelligent and creative guy. This book won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize, as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award, but I didn’t like it. I did appreciate the skill that went into it, however, and the introduction to Dominican history.

Rating: 3/5

Published in paperback by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2007

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6 Responses to Review of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: A Novel” by Junot Díaz

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    I remember when this book was getting lots of buzz. I like the idea of it but don’t think it’s for me, either. It seems like it would be a lot of work to read it.

  2. Jeanne says:

    I looked at this and considered reading it before Diaz came to Kenyon a year or so ago, and your review bears out my impression. I read his short stories instead, This Is How You Lose Her.

  3. Yeah, I’m with you. I found the anti-women stuff really really frustrating, even though the writing was good and I was interested in the Dominican history. But like, surely I can find a Dominican woman whose books I can read instead. :p

  4. Beth F says:

    I too remember all the buzz about this one. I passed on it, and I think I made the right decision.

  5. stacybuckeye says:

    Definitely not for me!

  6. Oh, this is interesting. One of my good friends normally sings very high praise of his work, but I’ve never gotten around to digging into any of it. I’ll have to ask my friend if they’ve ever read this one before. Really good review, and thanks for the heads up on the anti-woman themes.

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