Michael's Reviews > The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
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I have tended to neglect the Latin American masters of magical realism because of foolish biases in expectation. For my taste I stubbornly clung to a preference for outright science fiction or full-fledged fantasy over some half-way order of things or a sporadic supernatural or otherworldly force of causality in a narrative. But I am changing my ways under the onslaught of talented writers who make the magical realism approach work well. Like with this one, where Diaz gets me onboard already in the prologue with the nameless narrator explaining how this book is a “fukú story”, an example of a sort of karmic curse playing out endlessly since it was given birth in the New World with Columbus’ landing in Hispaniola. The clencher for me was his sleight of hand with the following:

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.

The tale that leads in this book is the life of Oscar at different times in his life. He is an overweight nerd who immigrated with his mother and sister from the Dominican Republic to Paterson, New Jersey, in the 60s. He has some nurturing and protection from his secretive mother and wild sister Lola, but his fatness, social ineptness, and geeky interests in comics, fantasy and sci fi, and, later, video games make it impossible for him to find love and assures he is an easy mark for bullies. We watch him develop, cringe over him as endless, fruitless crushes obsess him, and get hopeful over his throwing himself into writing as a sphere for success. As we follow him into college at Rutgers, where his sister studies, we can only be sad over how he has never grown up. But somehow Oscar is able to achieve a meaningful platonic relationship with a popular student he is smitten with, something his roommate has failed through his typical Don Juan type of pursuit.

And what was simply a childish escape into the fantasy of comics, “Lord of the Rings”, and “Dune” becomes a perfect medium later in life when he must comprehend the cruel legacy of Trujillo’s reign on his family and people. Actually, we get this overlay from the beginning by the narrator, who seems to be channeling Oscar. Tucked into a footnote on page two, we make the acquaintance of the dictator who held supreme power over the DR from 1930-61:

A portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulatto who bleached his skin, wore platform shoes, and had a fondness for Napolean-era haberdashery … He was our Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator, a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up.

The overall thrust of Oscar’s story, which we can only guess will be brief and somehow wondrous, is interrupted by long interludes that paint the portraits of key members of his family’s lives. It will become clear that we cannot understand Oscar and that Oscar cannot become Oscar in isolation from that knowledge. His sister Lola runs away, experiences great passion and heartbreak, and gets in trouble before finally settling down. We follow the life of his mother, Belicia, who was even more a force of nature. She works in the with a bakery business while living under the strict but loving regime of an aunt, with no knowledge of who her real father. She is pretty and wild, and gets in trouble when she falls for the effete son of an evil military officer high in Trujillo’s power structure. She barely escapes with her life (a mystical mongoose, at least in her mind, had an important role to play). The next step is into the life of her father (Oscar’s grandfather), the surgeon and intellectual Abelard, a man blessed in the love of his wife and three daughters. How he stood up to the practice of Trujillo of taking and raping whatever teen daughter in his land that caught his eye is a true tale of superhero proportions. For Diaz to bear witness to this aspect of history through the tragedy of Abelard was powerful and disturbing. So easy to imagine fukú in action and that Belicia’s survival as some sort of miracle.

Oscar in his twenties ends up teaching high school English in Paterson, and in his despair he seeks more of his roots and identity and comes to spend more and more time in DR on breaks or summers. He falls in love yet once again. This time he has some hope of reciprocation. But despite Trujillo being long gone, fuku still lives, and Oscar is brave in facing its forces. The hidden narrator emerges more clearly now as his friend from college and Lola’s intermittent boyfriend, Yunior, who has told us that his writing of the story is a form of counter-fukú, which he calls zafa.

I was totally wowed (“Wao-ed”) by the craft and richness in this story, by the coming of age saga of both boy and mother, the immigrant experience of striving to fit in vs. need for cultural identity, and the pitting of the imagination against the real horrors of a corrupt state. I didn’t get a lot of the geeky references beyond Tolkien and Herbert and popular movies I had seen. That didn’t detract much. A lot of the Spanish interlacing in the book I wished I could have gotten more than what context revealed. One reader has made an annotated guide to these bottlenecks to full appreciation (http://www.annotated-oscar-wao.com/).

I learned by internet surfing that it took about 10 years for Díaz to write the book after a successful volume of short stories called “Drown” (a free story from this called Edson, New Jersey is available). Yunior is a character in a lot of these and is the protagonist of his 2012 novel “This is How You Lose Her”. I like his voice and his struggles with his macho ways, so I aim to read it (and a science fiction novel under construction). The ironic, self-deprecating humor shown by both Yunior and Oscar alike is an outlook I love. In a joint interview with Díaz and fellow writer and friend Francesco Goldman in the Christian Scientist Monitor, Diaz shares a lot on his struggles to achieve what I find as a perfect balance of light and dark in his book:

"Oscar Wao" more than any of my other works was a delicate balancing act – keeping the voice from becoming too funny or too bleak, too historical or too nerdish.


Junot Díaz, by Nina Sundin

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Reading Progress

March 18, 2015 – Started Reading
March 18, 2015 – Shelved
March 24, 2015 – Finished Reading
March 25, 2015 – Shelved as: 1001-books
March 25, 2015 – Shelved as: fiction
March 25, 2015 – Shelved as: sexuality
March 25, 2015 – Shelved as: satire
March 25, 2015 – Shelved as: humor
March 25, 2015 – Shelved as: social-commentary
March 25, 2015 – Shelved as: immigrant-experience
March 25, 2015 – Shelved as: new-jersey
March 25, 2015 – Shelved as: dominican-republic
March 25, 2015 – Shelved as: hispanic
March 25, 2015 – Shelved as: magical-realism
March 25, 2015 – Shelved as: coming-of-age
March 25, 2015 – Shelved as: racism
March 25, 2015 – Shelved as: colonialism

Comments Showing 1-16 of 16 (16 new)

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Elyse  Walters Wonderful story & writing. I still want to read This Is How You Lose Her. (oh.., I'm so glad I'm almost done with Netgalley due dates for awhil). Three more to go.., then I'm hitting my personal neglected free choice list. I remember this one being visually vibrant.... Feeling like you were on that island.

Oscar was impossible not to love


message 2: by Christi (new)

Christi Wonderful review! My daughter has this one I think or at least has been talking about wanting to read it. I've been considering it as well and your review has convinced me to add it to my list :)


message 3: by Booknblues (new) - added it

Booknblues This has been on my TBR for a while and knowing you liked it so much pushes it up for me.


Michael Elyse wrote: "Wonderful story & writing. I still want to read This Is How You Lose Her. ...
I remember this one being visually vibrant.... Feeling like you were on that island.
Oscar was impossible not to love.


That's a perfect review right there. You should post just those 5 points to go with your 5 stars. You and 10 others of my GR friends I now see reached that high. But I only just now took a look at friends' reviews. So I didn't have any preconceptions about the book going in. Just that Pulitzer people liked it but many found it overwrought or contrived.

I see how it got a lot of my friends to be readers closer to when it came out (2007), close to 20% of them. We join two thirds of my other reader friends who rendered it 4 or 5 stars. Happiness deserves such company.

Still I can't fault the litany of reasons over a third found it just okay, meh, or worse (3 stars or less). Our friend LeeAnne made me smile with illustrating how it was like "lipstick on a pig". My sci fi friend down under, whose taste usually aligns so well with mine, gave it a humble one star. I guess you can modify your "impossible not to love" Oscar to "impossible for I and many others not to love" him, :-)


message 5: by Michael (last edited Mar 31, 2015 09:34PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Michael Christi wrote: "Wonderful review! My daughter has this one I think or at least has been talking about wanting to read it...."

Your kind words are like flowers that are not possile where I live. That's great how you can use your daughter to scout out the good books to read. I use certain friends that way, push books on them that I think I will like, and use their responses to help clench the choice.


Michael Booknblues wrote: "This has been on my TBR for a while and knowing you liked it so much pushes it up for me."

I wasn't the only one among my friends who have the book on their radar enough to tag it TBR (almost another 20% of my GR friends like you). The drip-drip of favorable reviews by the ones who made the leap with good outcome reaches the point of lift off--opening the book. I confess I had the book, but still ended up doing it by audiobook. All the dialog in the books works so fine that way. I could digest the footnote content at leisure with the book.


message 7: by Booknblues (new) - added it

Booknblues I confess I had the book, but still ended up doing it by audiobook. All the dialog in the books works so fine that way. I could digest the footnote content at leisure with the book.
"


I haven't made the leap to audio books yet.


Steve I got to enjoy this all over again thanks to your superb summary and insights, Michael. It's good to see Diaz get the recognition he deserves for this. Ten years is a lot of time to invest.


Michael Steve wrote: "I got to enjoy this all over again thanks to your superb summary and insights, Michael. It's good to see Diaz get the recognition he deserves for this. Ten years is a lot of time to invest."

Thanks! Like making sausage, sometimes you don't want to hear from writers about the sweat and guts they put into their writing. In this case it would good to learn how humbled he was trying to pull this off.


Book Concierge I was definitely in the DID NOT LIKE camp on this one. Couldn't even finish it. But I really appreciate your review.


message 11: by Sandro (new) - added it

Sandro Lindson should someone read "The Stand" "Dune" or any other novel beforehand that might be helpful in understanding this work better?


Michael Claire wrote: "should someone read "The Stand" "Dune" or any other novel beforehand that might be helpful in understanding this work better?"

I like the way your mind works on that. I would love to see you make such a network of triangulation for fellow readers like me.


Paige P I realize that this review was written 9 months ago, but bravo! This is a brilliant review, Michael. Are you a writer?


message 14: by Sandro (new) - added it

Sandro Lindson Michael wrote: "Claire wrote: "should someone read "The Stand" "Dune" or any other novel beforehand that might be helpful in understanding this work better?"

I like the way your mind works on that. I would love t..."


I don't really get whether you're being sarcastic or not. but I'm open to humor anytime.


Abram Dorrough Nice review! I agree the book doesn't give enough textual clues to understand all the Spanish parts if you aren't familiar with Spanish, but I believe that's what Díaz was going for: the more you know about / are exposed to Hispanic culture, and Hispanic culture within the USA, the more you can relate to all the characters and their language. I'm native English and Spanish so the dialogue flowed like melted butter for me.


Michael Abram wrote: "Nice review! I agree the book doesn't give enough textual clues to understand all the Spanish parts if you aren't familiar with Spanish, but I believe that's what Díaz was going for: the more you know..."

Thanks for the kind word and insight. Any good word about his other works?


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