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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Paperback – September 2, 2008
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Meet Oscar de León. Once upon a time, in elementary school, Oscar was a slick Dominican kid who seemed to have a typical life ahead of him. Then, around the time he hit puberty, Oscar gained a whole lot of weight, became awkward both physically and socially, and got deeply interested in things that made him an outcast among his peers (sci-fi novels, comics, Dungeons & Dragons, writing novels, etc.). A particularly unfortunate Dr. Who Halloween costume earns him the nickname Oscar Wao for the costume's resemblance to another Oscar: playwright Oscar Wilde (Wao being a Dominican spin on the surname). His few friends are embarrassed by him, girls want nothing to do with him, and everywhere he goes Oscar finds nothing but derision and hostility. And he's not the only person in his family suffering through life: his mother, a former beauty, has been ravaged by illness, bad love affairs, and worry regarding her two children; and his sister Lola, another intense beauty, has been cursed with a nomadic soul and her mother's poor taste in men.
The kicker about the de León family? They just may be the victims of a bona fide curse (a particularly nasty one at that, called a fukú) as a result of their history with Rafael Trujillo, a former dictator of the Dominican Republic renowned for his brutality, and whose enemies uniformly met with disastrous ends one way or another (historical details about Trujillo and the history of his reign are scattered throughout the novel, a tidbit that may turn some off of the book, but rest assured that Díaz is so utterly entertaining a writer that they are a joy to read). The de Leóns are on a collision course with disaster, but can they break the curse before it's too late?
"you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in."
Embroiled in all this mess is Yunior, our primary narrator and Oscar's former college roommate (not to mention the philandering ex-boyfriend of Lola, the novel's other narrator), whose experiences with the de León clan will haunt him for the rest of his life. His attempts to help Oscar become more popular fail, as do his tries to escape Oscar's grasp. "These days," he remarks at one point, "I have to ask myself: What made me angrier? That Oscar, the fat loser, quit, or that Oscar, the fat loser, defied me? And I wonder: What hurt him more? That I was never really his friend, or that I pretended to be?"
Oscar is far and away the most poignant character to come along in a great long while; in my book he's every bit as memorable as Ignatius J. Reilly, Holden Caulfield, Randall Patrick McMurphy, and other literary giants. Furthermore, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" is a phenomenal novel that is hysterical, hypnotic, heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal parts (and quite often at the same time). The plot is a madcap high-wire act balanced with astonishing dexterity by Junot Díaz. If he has a misstep it is in the denouement, which is rather sudden and slightly lacking in clarity for an otherwise thorough novel. Nonetheless, I loved, loved, loved this book. And, naturally, I highly recommend it.
To be fair, sometimes the story feels more like "A People's History of the Dominican Republic." than a novel about a geeky kid from New Jersey. Not that this is a bad thing -- Diaz manages to get at the political, economic, and psychological forces that brought so many Dominican immigrants to the U.S . over the last fifty years via captivating and dextrous prose. The dominant theme of this multigenerational story is the "fuku" (curse) Oscar's family lives under. (Of course, as Yunior points out, every Dominican family believes itself to be cursed by the fuku americanus, a curse brought by European colonialists which has turned the Caribbean Eden into a despotic prison to be escaped.)s The fuku first hits Oscar's grandfather, an upper-class doctor undone by the rise of the Trujillo thugocracy (equal to that of Saddam Hussein in horror inflicted on its subjects). His daughter (Oscar's mother) faces her own tragedy due to the fuku, and is the bridge between life in the D.R. and life in America, as she escapes to New York. Her children, Oscar and Lola, represent the generation born and bred in the U.S. -- both connected to, and apart from their Dominican heritage.
The story thus enables Diaz to examine how nationality, culture, and language become more and more blended over generations (non-Spanish speakers should note that the book is full of untranslated Spanish words and phrases, which can be a little frustrating at times). The segments of the book set in the D.R. under the Trujillo regime tend to be a great deal more compelling than the contemporary storyline. The story of Oscar's mother's childhood and teen years are far more colorful and dramatic than the on-again, off-again romance between Yunior and Oscar's sister Lola, and are definitely more interesting than Oscar's own geeky problems. Fat, obsessive, and devoid of social skills, Oscar makes it hard for people (including the reader) to sympathize with him and his dual dreams of becoming the "Dominican Tolkein" and losing his virginity. The final section of the book, in which Oscar pursues love with the trademark oblivious obsession that has made him an outcast, is pretty much straightforward classical doomed love, and thus the least interesting and convincing.
The overall effect of the book is a good deal more sad and depressing than I had expected. Although the title and opening chapter alert the reader to the brevity of Oscar's life, for some reason, I hadn't expected it to unfold quite as pathetically and tragically as it does. Similar tragedies unfold in the previous generations, and by the end of the book, there is little consolation of any kind to be found. Diaz writes with so much compassion for his characters that one would be hard pressed not to be affected. However, the sexual themes that pervade all the storylines act as somewhat of a life-affirming counterbalance to all the death and disappointment. And above all, there is the sheer exuberance and dexterity of the prose, which makes the book well worth reading from a purely stylistic or technical perspective. Not exactly a masterpiece, but well worth reading.