The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was written by Junot Diaz. It follows the life of Oscar De Leon, an overweight Dominican kid living in New Jersey, growing up in the 80's. The story is narrated by a mysterious voice who seems personally familiar with the De Leon family, and is eventually revealed to be a character in the story; providing an opinionated and emotional voice through which the events of Oscar’s life are described. I found the first-person narration to really amplify the realism of the story, so much so that I thought it was based on a true story for most of the book, and that the narrator was actually Diaz. In terms of its overarching themes, the novel is an introduction to Dominican history, both cultural and political, as well as the effects of this history on the Dominican Diaspora in America. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, simply put, is a sad story filled with undue suffering, abuse, and grief for most of the characters. The De Leon family is said to be cursed by the Fúkú, a superstition said to have been brought to the people of the Dominican Republic by the arrival of Europeans, and judging by the amount of bad luck the family members experience, I think Diaz certainly wanted you to believe in the Fúkú.
I haven't read much Latin American fiction before, but I have read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, and this book reminded me of Marquez's in two ways. Firstly, Diaz uses elements of magical realism in his writing, which is a common trait of Latin American fiction. In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the members of the De Leon family are visited by different spirits at important points in the novel, like the man with no face who symbolizes the nameless and unknown victims of Trujillo's regime, which several characters come close to joining at points. There is also the mongoose who appears multiple times in the story, deus ex machina style, when a De Leon's life is in danger. The mongoose tries to guide them to safety, acting as their Zafa - the Anti-Fukú
The second similarity I found was how both books focused on telling the story of a family, rather than of individuals. Diaz introduces us to three generations of the De Leon family in the story, similar to the multi-generational Macondo family in Marquez's One Hundred Years, which spans one hundred years of history (hence the name). I think the choice to frame a story around the family and its history speaks to the cultural importance of family to Latin Americans. Understanding where you’ve came from is vital to understanding your reality, and I think this is even more important when your people or your country have undergone much conflict and turmoil in past generations, as is the case with Diaz's Dominican Republic and Marquez's Colombia.
Despite it being called The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the story is about much more than Oscar. Oscar's introduction to begin the book is a rather conventional portrait of a nerdy and overweight adolescent, albeit unconventional in that he is also a Dominican immigrant. That's why this story wouldn't be half as good if it was simply a coming-of-age story about Oscar and his struggles with women. The beauty and richness of the story come from the exploration of Oscar and Lola’s (his sister) ancestral roots, and how their past has affected, or seems to have affected, their own lives. Like Marquez, Diaz highlights the cyclical nature of time and how the past can repeat itself. Oscar is an outsider his whole life because of his appearance, never being accepted or desired by women. His mother, Beli, experiences the same physical discrimination growing up in the Dominican, because of her dark skin. It is only as she reaches puberty and transforms into a muy bella muchacha that she is accepted, and lusted over by men. However this feminine sexuality is dangerous, and she almost is killed because of it. This danger inherent to feminine beauty is experienced by Beli’s parents as well (Oscar’s grandparents). Beli’s older sister was an equally stunning beauty by the time she hit puberty, and she became the object of desire for the country's dictator himself, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. Her father, Alfred Cabral (Beli was adopted by an Aunt after her family's deaths and took her Aunt's last name: "De Leon"), was a doctor and a member of the country's bourgeois elite. As such, he frequently had to attend state events in the presence of Trujillo. Alfred's refusal to bring his daughter to these events, due to fear of her being apprehended by Trujillo, ultimately results in his arrest (for allegedly unrelated crimes - doesn't really matter in a dictatorship) and a life sentence in prison. In the years to come, the absence of their father results, indirectly, in the deaths of both of his daughters, and also his wife, shortly after giving birth to Beli. All of this suffering simply because the sociopathic dictator wanted to fuck every hot chica in the country. The details of Alfred Cabral's prison treatment was the some of the most disturbing and violent writing in the entire book, and it really put into context the hardships of their grandchildren, Oscar and Lola.
At first, with the knowledge of the horrific circumstances under which their mother and grandparents lived and died in the Dominican, and how their mother barely escaped to New Jersey with her life, the issues of Oscar and Lola seem trivial in comparison. How could their problems be any more difficult or warrant any sympathy compared to that of their ancestors'? They have more opportunities for success and happiness than their ancestors did, living in a first-world country and getting a first-world education, why should we feel sorry they squandered it? But under the surface, I don't think this was why Diaz told the story of their past, he wanted to frame a different question. He continually references the family curse that plagues the De Leon family, their fúkú, and like I said previously I believe he wanted to convince you it exists and really affects the characters. It is in this line of thinking that he wants you to think about: Does the fúkú exist, and does it even matter whether it does or not? Are these characters, and by broader inference are all first-generation immigrants affected by the history they bring with them, and is that the real Fúkú? Diaz alludes to this concept below:
“Whether I believe in what many have described as the Great American Doom is not really the point. You live as long as I did in the heart of fukú country, you hear these kinds of tales all the time. Everybody in Santo Domingo has a fukú story knocking around in their family. I have a twelve-daughter uncle in the Cibao who believed that he’d been cursed by an old lover never to have male children. Fukú. I have a tía who believed she’d been denied happiness because she’d laughed at a rival’s funeral. Fukú. My paternal abuelo believes that diaspora was Trujillo’s payback to the pueblo that betrayed him. Fukú. It’s perfectly fine if you don’t believe in these ‘superstitions’. In fact, it’s better than fine—it’s perfect. Because no matter what you believe, fukú believes in you.” -Diaz, 12
I was really captivated by how Diaz chose to write Oscar Wao, both stylistically and thematically. His use of a first-person narrator added a dynamic element to the story; the narrator is gradually revealed to be Yunior, a long-term love interest to Lola, a serial womanizer, and also a roommate with Oscar while in college. Yunior, like Oscar, is also an aspiring writer in the story, and so he is very self-referential and aware of the fact that this is a book, like this anecdotal footnote about a historical inaccuracy in an earlier draft:
“In my first draft, Samaná was actually Jarabacoa, but then my girl Leonie, resident expert in all things Domo, pointed out that there are no beaches in Jarabacoa. Beautiful rivers but no beaches. Leonie was also the one who informed me that the perrito (see first paragraphs of chapter one, ‘Ghetto Nerd at the End of the World’) wasn’t popularized until the late eighties, early nineties, but that was one detail I couldn’t change, just liked the image too much. Forgive me, historians of popular dance, forgive me!” -Diaz, 225
The use of footnotes is also an interesting choice by Diaz. I think he wanted to emulate how science fiction and fantasy novels add realism to a story by building a rich and complex world for their stories to inhabit. Effective world-building is an important part of these genres, and I feel that footnotes are a good way of including this extraneous detail whenever it is relevant. It gives the reader the sense that there is more to the world than what is written on the page. It just so happens that in Diaz's case, the world building is real and his world is the planet of the Dominican Republic and it's extraordinary history. Teaching the reader about the history of the country in this fantastical, story-telling, type of way evokes a sort of mythos that reinforces the elements of magical realism Diaz includes. For example, take this footnote describing the chief of the secret police under Trujillo’s regime:
“Johnny Abbes Garcia was one of Trujillo’s beloved Morgul Lords. Chief of the dreaded and all-powerful secret police (SIM), Abbes was considered the greatest torturer of the Dominican People ever to have lived. An enthusiast of Chinese torture techniques, Abbes was rumored to have in his employ a dwarf who would crush prisoners’ testicles between his teeth. Plotted endlessly against Trujillo’s enemies, the killer of many young revolutionaries and students (including the Mirabal Sisters). [...] After Trujillo’s death Abbes was named consul to Japan (just to get him out of the country) and ended up working for that other Caribbean nightmare, the Haitian dictator François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier. Wasn’t nearly as loyal to Papa Doc as he was to Trujillo—after an attempted double-cross Papa Doc shot Abbes and his family and then blew their fucking house up. (I think P. Daddy knew exactly what kind of creature he was dealing with.) No Dominican believes that Abbes died in that blast. He is said to still be out there in the world, waiting for the next coming of El Jefe, when he too will rise from the Shadow.” -Diaz, 189 Interweaving science fiction references, rumours, and myths with colourful writing, Diaz is able to inform the reader of the history of Dominican Republic while also entertaining the idea of supernatural influences.
Science fiction and fantasy references are abundant throughout the actual text as well, since the narrator, Yunior, as well as Oscar are both fans of the genre. Although not made explicit, I think the inclusion of all the SF references are meant to be seen as an homage to Oscar by Yunior, who is writing this book about him. The excessive use of SF metaphors is Yunior's tribute to Oscar and Oscar’s love for the" more speculative genres", ias he describes them.
The other item of note, with regards to Diaz's writing, is his use of spanglish, which is the inclusion of Spanish words and phrases interspersed throughout the writing. I can understand that it makes the narration by Yunior, who is also a first-generation Dominican immigrant, more genuine. However it unfortunately detracted from my reading experience, as the extent of my Spanish going into this book did not extend much farther than una cerveza por favor. So I think someone with a more competent grasp of the language might appreciate the bilingual prose a bit more. Although I must say my Spanish vocabulary improved somewhat due to reading this book, as you may have gleaned from my own sprinkling of spanglish in this review.
The last thing I wanted to share my thoughts on was what I think made this story meaningful. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was about, well, the Oscar De Leon's life. The inclusion of “brief” as the first adjective immediately tips the reader off that the story will probably not have a happy ending, in the traditional sense. And indeed, Oscar dies at the age of [AGE], not exactly by suicide, but certainly his pathological actions were the main reason it happened. It might be argued that he knew this and was ultimately hoping for death in his relentless pursuit of affectual reciprocation from the middle-aged prostitute he travels to the Dominican to be with. Considering he had previously attempted suicide, I don't think this theory is necessarily out of the question. For me, I think Oscar had no choice; he was too unhappy to continue on. When you are helplessly subservient to the pursuit of something you've never experienced, it begins to fracture you, in the words of David Foster Wallace: "Two hearted, a hypocrite to yourself either way" - for Oscar he could not sustain this mode of being, deprived of affection from the opposite sex for his whole life. And he let this pursuit kill him because he could not co-exist with it.
The second adjective in the title, wondrous, is important. I think Diaz wanted to tell a story to illustrate a reality. A reality rooted in his culminative experience as a member of the Dominican Diaspora living in America. To put under a glaring white light and describe the experience of an outcast, unabashedly through the voice of Yunior, who simultaneously pities and admires Oscar. Oscar, despite never experiencing true reciprocal love, is incapable of being unfaithful to the things he loves. Yunior sees that and sees how important it is, so he (Diaz) writes a story about him. The wondrous life of Oscar De Leon*.
* Oscar had a nickname involuntarily bestowed upon him after he dressed up as Doctor Who for a Halloween party one year in college. Someone there decided that he resembled a fat, Dominican Oscar Wilde. And thus the spanglish variation Oscar Wao became his nickname.