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.