Monday, November 26, 2018

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz was written in 2007. It won the Pulitzer prize for fiction and numerous other awards. It is included in several lists of best books of the 21st century. At least one list rated it as the best.


I loved this book but it may not appeal to some readers as it is full of references to both popular and obscure science fiction and related genres. In addition to these references, there are major connections to Frank Herbert’s Dune, JRR Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings and the comic book series The Watchman. I have read both the Herbert and Tolkien books. I read the Wikipedia entry on The Watchman to help me with this book.

Much of the narrative covers the life of Oscar de León. Oscar is a young Dominican man growing up and going to college in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. These parts of the book also concern themselves with Oscar’s sister, Lola, and her boyfriend, Yunior. Some chapters cover Oscar’s mother, Beli, growing up in the Dominican Republic in the 1960s, and still others cover his grandfather, Abelard, a doctor in the Dominican Republic during the 1940s and 1950s. 

Oscar is a social outcast who is obsessed with science fiction, fantasy and other speculative books, film and television. Oscar has a terrible time adjusting to society. The depiction of him is detailed, complex and believable. At one point, his school years are described, 


“High school was Don Bosco Tech, and since Don Bosco Tech was an urban all-boys Catholic school packed to the strakes with a couple hundred insecure hyperactive adolescents, it was, for a fat sci-fi–reading nerd like Oscar, a source of endless anguish. For Oscar, high school was the equivalent of a medieval spectacle, like being put in the stocks and forced to endure the peltings and outrages of a mob of deranged half-wits, an experience from which he supposed he should have emerged a better person, but that’s not really what happened—and if there were any lessons to be gleaned from the ordeal of those years he never quite figured out what they were. He walked into school every day like the fat lonely nerdy kid he was, and all he could think about was the day of his manumission, when he would at last be set free from its unending horror”


There is a lot more to Oscar. He experiences love, rejection, terrible bouts of depression, and he sometimes acts surprisingly. He philosophizes a great deal and develops a lot as a character. His family members and friends, especially Lola and Yunior, are also very complex and believable. 

The parts of the book that focus on Oscar’s grandfather, Abelard, are tragic. Rafael Trujillo was the real-life dictator of the Dominican Republic during Abelard’s time. As per the book and some other sources that I have read, he was more brutal and controlling than the average dictator. According to this novel, among his outrages was the fact that he had a habit of personally raping young girls throughout the Dominican Republic. In an effort to protect his daughter from Trujillo, Abelard brings destruction to himself and to his family. 

The chapters that describe Beli’s adolescence in the 1960s paint the picture of a rebellious but naive young girl whose affair with a government operative draws the wrath of the powerful man’s wife. Beli is beaten and terrorized by the police and thus forced to flee to America.

The dialogue between characters ranges from funny to profound to heart breaking. The parts that take place in the later twentieth century contain a fair amount of Spanglish as well as a lot of profanity. 

Most, but not all, of the chapters are told in first person by Yunior, who is a multifaceted and nuanced character in his own right. Diaz has included his character in other books and stories that I have not read. Yunior also seems to be interested in science fiction/fantasy and comic books, so he fills the entire narrative with such references as well as references to some classic literature. Other chapters are narrated by Lola. There are also a lot of footnotes where the author chimes in about both the real world and the fictional story. 

There is something odd going on throughout the book. This peculiarity seems to be similar to magical realism. However, the magical realism in this book seems different from any other novels that I have read that incorporated the technique. This oddness seems to dig into the way that the author sees some basic human truths about violence, despair, gender, colonialism and more.

Early on it is mentioned by the narrator that Oscar’s family has a curse hanging over it. We learn in the book that in Dominican culture, this kind of curse is known as Fukú. The narrator, usually Yunior, takes a mostly ambivalent attitude as to whether he believes in the curse or not. However, at one point, he makes the case for it as he points out that throughout the years, the de León’s have had terrible fortune that seems to go beyond mere coincidence. This bad luck has led to terrible violence and death. Luckily there is a counterforce in that throughout the narrative, characters, especially the women, seem to use a kind of white magic. Some of them have a power of their own. This positive force is called zafa in the book, and according to Yunior, it is part of Dominican culture. 

Diaz takes this even further in a very unusual way. As mentioned earlier, the book is packed with references to science fiction, fantasy, comic books etc. The characters that exist in the 1940s and 1950s seem to be familiar with Frank Herbert’s novel Dune as they make several references to it, even though Dune was written in 1965. Furthermore, Oscar’s aunt La Inca and other women in the book seem to have zafa-related powers that are strongly connected the powers that some female characters had in Herbert’s book. With these important references to Dune, I might recommend that a reader try that book before reading this one. 

There is more. After the story of Abelard is related, an alternate version of events is told. In this version, Abelard is writing a book that exposed Trujillo as a nonhuman, evil creature from another world. When the dictator discovered Abelard’s plans to publish his expose, a curse was put on the entire de León family. 

In an hour of darkest peril, Beli believes that she was helped by a talking mongoose that was a messenger from God. Though the reader is not sure if this is a figment of imagination or not, years later, Oscar is helped by the same mongoose when he is near death. Both Beli in her time and Oscar encounter a malevolent faceless man. Thus, there seems to be a mystical conflict going on between the forces of violence and chaos and the forces of nonviolence and benevolence. As I mentioned above, there is a strong connection between these benevolent forces and the feminine powers. Perhaps the author seems to be saying that it is women who play the predominate role in opposing violence and chaos in the world.

I read just a little bit online about the symbolism behind fukú, and the consensus is that it relates to colonialism. I agree that there are indications in the narrative that this is the case. However, I think that it is also representing something more universal, that is, the propensity for people to be violent and cruel. 

As I alluded to earlier, I read a few reviews and a little commentary on this book. Some have suggested that all the references to Dominican-American culture might lead those unfamiliar with that culture to be confused or at least to miss a lot in this book. I did not find this to be the case. The parts of this novel that take place in Patterson, New Jersey actually reminded me a lot of Philip Roth’s accounts of growing up in Jewish communities of New Jersey decades earlier. However, I think that those who are unfamiliar with science fiction/fantasy/comic book culture will miss a lot in this book. As per above, these references are all over the novel. In addition to the Dune connections, the dark forces and light forces in this book are connected in an important way to both The Lord of The Rings as well as to The Watchman. Growing up around the same time as Oscar and being a fan of science fiction and having ties to its “community” helped me to understand and relate to a lot of what is going on here. 

The government of the Dominican Republic is shown to be brutal and it perpetuates a great deal of cruelty and violence aimed at the de Leóns and others. Some readers might find these parts of the book disturbing. 

I immensely enjoyed this book. With that, I think that someone unfamiliar or uninterested in science fiction/fantasy culture might miss out on a lot and become bored. Thus, the book may not be universally admired. There is also a fair amount of disturbing brutality in this novel. However, the plot is compelling, and the characters are interesting and complex. It also offers an interesting look at Dominican-American culture as well as Dominican culture and history. It is full of odd things that contain a lot of underlying meaning. The right reader will find this a very worthy book. Some may also love it. 

36 comments:

Tracy Terry said...

Alas probably not a book that would interest me but I'm sure Mr T would find it riveting.

mudpuddle said...

i've seen this on bookshelves and been somewhat curious, but not enough apparently to remove and read it. so tx for the post: now i can decide... it sounds rather scattered, but creative... maybe i'll take a shot... tx...

James said...

I have had this book in my TBR pile for a long time. Your commentary encourages me to finally read it. It sounds fascinating and filled with ideas and issues that pique my interest.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - If I recall, Mr. T has also read a fair amount of science fiction.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle- In a lot of ways the book is a bit scattered when one thinks about it. However, the narrative flows fairly smoothly.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - As I think that you like some of the background science fiction I think that you would like this.

Andrew Blackman said...

Hi Brian
This review explains a lot for me! I read the book years ago and, although I enjoyed it, I remember being a bit disappointed and wondering what all the hype was about. I now realise that I completely missed a lot of the references! I found it fascinating to read about all these extra dimensions, which I think would have really helped me to appreciate the book more. Here are my brief thoughts on it from back in 2010, in case you're interested: https://andrewblackman.net/2010/06/“the-brief-wondrous-life-of-oscar-wao”-by-junot-diaz/

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for the link Andrew. Your review is terrific. I think that I enjoyed this book so much partially because of my ties to the science fiction culture referenced.

JacquiWine said...

I recall there being a massive buzz about this book around the time when it won the Pulitzer prize, certainly there was a point when virtually everyone I knew was reading it or talking about it. Probably not one for me if I'm honest given the genre elements, but I can see how it would capture the imagination of the right reader. Interesting use of magic realism too.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - A Pulitzer is a big deal. But as much as I liked this book I think that one could argue that it lacks universality due to the nature of its science fiction connections.

thecuecard said...

I didn't realize this novel had so many different elements in it. I think my book club picked it to read years ago (before I was in the book club) and they had trouble with it which doesn't surprise me now that you have explained all what it is about. It seems complex. I must admit, I'm not a big sci-fi, comics, or fantasy reader so I don't plan to pick it up -- but I'm glad to know what it's about and its themes. It sure was popular and hyped for quite awhile.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I can see how someone who was not familiar with the science fiction culture might be a little disappointed with this. Thus it is a little puzzling to me just how much mainstream but this received.

Sharon Wilfong said...

This sounds like a very interesting book, Brian. At least your review makes it sound so. I think I would like the Sci Fi and Tolkien references.

Interesting that the Dominican Republican government is shown as brutal. My understanding from a conversation I had with a Canadian who lives in Haiti was that the D.R. was much more humane than Haiti's government.

Now I want to look into that.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I think that you would get a lot out of the science fiction and fantasy references here. I had actually heard similar things about The Dominican Republic and Haiti in the past. I think that maybe The Dominican Republic just had a really bad period with Abelard.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, About a year ago I read In The Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez also set in the Dominican Republic and so I am curious about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao but I take your point that to really enjoy the novel its best to have a grounding in science fiction and fantasy. As you say, maybe we should read Dune first.
Great review as always

HKatz said...

I'm on the fence about reading this one, but your review at least has raised interesting points about the book, especially the fukú curse. The book as a whole sounds like a patchwork of different themes, images, ideas, and with a good author they can all fit well together or be held together with a masterful tension instead of being scattered.

Something about the mix of real-life brutality and fantasy images reminds me of a short story I read a while ago from a Haitian writer, Rodney Saint-Éloi. It's called "The Blue Hill." A local environmental disaster (the dumping of a toxic waste) causes sickness among local inhabitants, and the main character is trapped in feverish visions of dragons and demons.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy - I would really like to read In the Time of the Butterflies. It would never hurt to read Dune, in my opinion it was a great book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - There is a lot going on in this book. But it does fit together well. Even the mix of brutality and fantasy. The Blue Hill sounds fascinating.

So many books, so little time said...

I don't think this is one for me Brian but you do remind me I have Dune on my tbrm mountain and have done for a long time. Maybe time to bounce it up the list a bit xxx Hope you are well

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy- I love Dune. I like it better then this book. If you read that I would love to know what you thought of it.

Things are good with me. I hope that you are well.

Suko said...

What a great review! I've been interested in reading this book for a while, and your commentary rekindles my interest. I don't mind touches of magical realism, if done well.

Whispering Gums said...

I have read a lot about this book, but have only, myself, read one short story by Diaz. He's an author I'd like to read more of, partly because he offers a different voice in American literature to the white middle class one that abounds. It sounds like I'd be one of those who'd miss many of the sci fi/fantasy culture references in the book, but if the focus is Oscar then I suspect I could cope.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WP - Oscar is a great character. He is very much tied to the science fiction/fantasy culture.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko. If you like magical realism you would probably like this book.

JaneGS said...

This sounds absolutely fascinating—I really like magical realism, and I like the premise. You are right in that the sci-fi and fantasy references would elude me, but thank goodness for Wikipedia! Excellent review, Brian—it’s always fun to read a review when the book really resonates with the reviewer.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jane. I also like magical Realism. We are so lucky to have things like Google and Wikipedia. It opens up so much to us.

Maria Behar said...

BRILLIANT COMMENTARY AS USUAL, BRIAN!

I know I've mentioned, in other comments on your reviews, that I like reading weird stuff. But this book goes beyond "weird"! LOL. As you stated in your review, it is truly BIZARRE. It just has such an unusual combination of elements!

Having said all that, I must add that I can totally relate to Oscar. I, too, was an outcast nerd in high school. Not that I was overweight, but I was into reading a lot, and that's not the way to be popular in high school. Lol.

The overall plot does remind me somewhat of the one in Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of SolituDe", although I never did finish that book, due to the fact that just about every other character was named Aureliano Buendia. The whole dictator thing is a recurring theme in that book, as well. And it, too, employs the technique of magic realism.

I know I would enjoy all the fantasy references to The Lord of the Rings. SF, and maybe even comic books. However, one drawback is that I have not read "Dune", so I wouldn't really "get" those references, at this point.

Trujillo has a reputation for being a very cruel dictator. Those parts of the book might be too much for me. I can't take gory violence. The references to rape are also very disturbing.

All in all, this is a book for me to check out of the library, if I do decide to tackle it (after reading "Dune").

Thanks for all of your interesting thoughts!! Hope you're having a GREAT week!! <3 :)




Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria. I also like magical realism. This had a different feel from One Hundred Years of Solitude. Among several reasons for that I think is this book’s ties to The United States.

The Trujillo parts just got into explicit brutality a couple of times but they were disturbing.

Have a great week!

Caroline said...

I've read a few of his short stories and liked them. I also got this book and I'm sure, I would have liked it as well BUT - he got too much #MeToo related press and most of it sounds pretty convincing that I'm not so keen on reading him. I will have to look into it again and see what the final verdict is.
Before posting my comment, I did some research and found this.
https://www.bustle.com/p/after-junot-diaz-was-accused-of-sexual-harassment-assault-i-found-myself-in-the-writing-of-latinas-12016954

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline- I found out about the allagations after I had written my post. I read a little bit about them. I would have done more research if I had known before I purchased the book and read it. Since that piece you linked to the Pulitzer Board released the results of an investigation favorable to him.

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.nytimes.com/2018/11/16/us/junot-diaz-pulitzer-board.amp.html

That investigation is not the end all or final conclusion. At this point I have not looked into this enough to have a firm opinion. If I had known before I read the book I would have dug a bit deeper.

There is something of a Twitter war going on between his supporters and detractors. Both sides hand sent me lots of articles and opinion pieces. I have not read most of them.

Caroline said...

I hope you know, Brian, I was certain, you weren’t aware of all of the details. My comment was no criticism of you, just expressing why I’m staying away from a writer I was initially interested in myself. I’m very reluctant to believe some of the #MeToo accusations but in his case I’m on the fence, thinking rather, there might be some truth. I too will look into it some more.

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Caroline- No worries, I did not take it that way. I actually tend to believe most allagations that I hear. I find that this case is muddled in regards to who I believe. I was thinking about posting a blog on immoral and harmful behavior of writers but I decided that I should use examples that did not include this case because I am really not sure if the facts.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

This is one of those books where I remember where I was when I listened to it. It was about 10 years ago on a long walk. I liked this one but recall parts were hard to follow on audio. Does that ever happen to you - recalling where you were when you read a book?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Diane - I can imagine that this one might be difficult on audiobook. There are a few books, but a very few, that I remember where I was and what I was doing when reading them. These are mostly good memories.

The Bookworm said...

I have heard of Junot Díaz and have been curious. There was an all boys Don Bosco Tech in the town I grew up in, Paterson, I'm guessing it is the same one in the story because of the setting. I may read this one someday and I do enjoy magical realism and stories about Hispanic families.
I've never heard of fukú before. Interesting.
Great commentary as usual!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida - That is interesting that you grew up near where this book is set. Thus, I think that you would get a lot out of this book.