June 11, 2013

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Diaz


Oscar de Leon is a fat, nerdy teenage outcast. He spends his time writing the Great Sci-Fi Novel and has only one wish in his miserable life: to find his one true love. He wasn’t that way when he was younger, though, and there is only one thing to blame for the series of ill-fated events that has hounded his family for generations, all the way from the Dominican Republic to the United States and back again: the fukú, the evil curse that has first attached itself to his family when, decades before, his grandfather Abelard dared disobey the explicit command of Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. Because of the fukú, Oscar’s family was doomed: Abelard and wife, Oscar’s mother Belicia, and his sister Lola. The only way to combat the fukú is through the zafa – but where is it?




The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is in equal parts hilarious, sarcastic, witty, and blunt. This is the first work of Junot Diaz that I’ve had the pleasure of reading, and I enjoyed it from the first page all the way to the last.

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Primarily, the story is really about Oscar – how the “Wao” got attached to his name is the result of the unwanted reputation he had in his American high school – and, as a necessary consequence, his family. The story of his family, meanwhile, is inadvertently linked – blame it on the fukú – to that of the Dominican dictator Trujillo – if you don’t know the first thing about him or Dominican history, there’s no need to worry. The author is two steps ahead and has encapsulated what anyone needs to know in a few pages of hilariously-constructed footnotes at the beginning of the novel. The bits and pieces of those bitter years in Dominican Republic history were very enlightening, even for the disinterested, and I appreciated how my curiosity was piqued just the right way – enough for me to research on the subject and discover a significant political period in the Dominican Republic history. I love historical fiction.

The premise of the novel – the fukú – was interestingly explained in the beginning. And the fukú certainly laid it pretty thick on Oscar’s family – prison, dreadful accidents, fatal beatings, incurable sicknesses, and, in our geeky hero’s case, a wretched love life. How could they possibly cope?

The title is a dead giveaway as to Oscar’s fate, but before he reaches that point, he endures and struggles. Then he endures and struggles some more. He is such a pitiable character that it compensates for the apparently wrong decisions he makes every step of the way – not that he had much of a choice in matters, to begin with. In contrast, his sister Lola is a rather strong character, but still none the wiser. She is brash and impetuous, but her love for her brother cannot be denied.

From the siblings de Leon, the narrative takes the reader back to Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, in the earlier decades when their mother, the younger Belicia, was herself resisting and writhing free of the long arms of the fukú. From survivor Belicia, the narrative goes back further to the story of her father, Abelard, who had the misfortune to have hobnobbed with the Jefe, Trujillo. The histories are recounted in order to trace where the fukú originated, and this is where the trail stops.

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I loved how the novel was written – straightforward and no-nonsense, with Spanish words or phrases inserted in nearly every other sentence – sans translation – which, to my mind, added sincerity to the thoughts and words of the narrator, infused the narrative with the entire Dominican experience.

Just as the standoff between the Good Neighbor and what remained of Family Trujillo reached the breaking point, Beli was brought before a judge. La Inca made her put ojas de mamón in her shoes so he wouldn’t ask too many questions. Homegirl stood through the whole proceedings, numb, drifting. The week before, she and the Gangster had finally managed to meet in one of the first love motels in the capital. The one run by los chinos, about which Luis Diaz sang his famous song. It was not the reunion she had hoped for. Ay, mi pobre negrita, he moaned, stroking her hair.

No hablo Español, sí, but I know enough from my 6 units of Spanish in college to understand and follow the storyline. Even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have minded – the meaning of the words can easily be inferred from the context in which they were used. The reader would not have been entirely lost in the words. And I loved the dry humor – I found myself either chuckling or snorting in countless parts. The last sentence of the following excerpt, in particular, made me laugh out loud.

Abelard and the Failed Cattle Thief might have glided past each other in the Halls of History if not for the fact that starting in 1944, Abelard, instead of bringing his wife and daughter to Jefe events, as custom dictated, began to make a point of leaving them at home. He explained to his friends that his wife had become “nervous” and that Jacquelyn took care of her but the real reason for the absences was Trujillo’s notorious rapacity and his daughter Jacquelyn’s off-the-hook looks. Abelard’s serious, intellectual oldest daughter was no longer her tall awkward flaquita self; adolescence had struck with a fury, transforming her into a young lady of great beauty. She had caught a serious case of the hips-ass-chest, a condition which during the mid-forties spelled trouble with a capital T to the R to the U to the J to the illo.

Considering its structure and writing, the novel would, understandably, not appeal to everyone. There are curse words, crass expressions, vulgar terminologies over which certain people may take offense, but to me, they simply added to the book’s charm. Because Oscar was a sci-fi and fantasy geek, there were various references to books that belong to those genre: The Lord of the Rings, the Shannara series, Star Wars and Star Trek, and even Superman was mentioned a couple of times, too. I appreciated these references because I was more or less familiar with a few of them, and for the uninitiated, it doesn’t really militate against full enjoyment of the novel.

Muy bueno, Junot!

Book Details: My own, trade paperback, bought pre-loved from Tricia
Rating:  ★★★

4 comments:

Peter S. said...

Curse words, crass expressions, vulgar terminologies -- I am sooooo reading this!

Monique said...

PETER: Hahaha! Did they get you interested? Read away! :D

angus25 said...

Great review! I like the effect of the footnotes here. And did you know that not all the footnotes are real? Hihihi.

Monique said...

BUDDY: Thank you! :)

Oh I didn't know that. I might have to research further. But because I looked up "Trujillo" I think that, more or less, his existence and dictatorship years are more or less true. :)