The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao follows a family that has been cursed by the fukú, and details some of their history, as well as the life of a boy named Oscar. Told from the perspective of Yunior, a friend of the family’s, the book narrates events happening in America, as well as in the Dominican Republic, both now and under the reign of Trujillo.
As someone who knows very little about the Dominican Republic and its history, I found this book particularly interesting, both with the narrative style, the characterizations, and the way in which Diaz incorporates the history of the Dominican Republic with the story of this seemingly innocuous family.
I should actually start with: I was reading this book for a class on American Fiction from 1945 to the Present. Which I think made the book even more interesting because I got a lot more out of it (in the sense that I got a lot more of a discussion of the fukú, the ending, the narrative style, etc). But even reading it for pleasure this book has a lot to offer. For one, Diaz writes in a combination of Spanish and English, and he combines the two flawlessly. Diaz also includes footnotes which–if you end up reading the book–you should actually read, because not only do they detail the context and history of the things Yunior is talking about, but they’re also absolutely hilarious and rich with the same narrative style that Diaz uses throughout the novel.
The other thing that made me love this book was Yunior’s narration, which was extremely engaging. It was enraptured in “geek culture,” had countless references to sci-fi films and books, and had the general feel that Yunior was not just writing the story, he was telling it. The narrative had this communicative quality that made me feel like Diaz was writing the way he would imagine Yunior would actually talk. Just to give you a small taste:
You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.–Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Yunior’s narrative is also amazing because, though it contains a history that is not exactly taught in most schools and incorporates a language that I, personally, didn’t know, I never felt like I was missing anything. The way Diaz writes makes it feel as though you are completely included, or as though you are being let in on something that otherwise would have felt excluding. And even if you don’t understand all the sci-fi references, you are still able to get the gist of what Yunior is saying.
The last thing I’m going to say is this: this book is very dark, and I don’t mean its got one rough scene. I mean this book is DARK. This is not going to be a light-hearted read–after all, you know by the title that Oscar does not live an overly long life. But that is not the only terrible thing to happen in this novel, there are scenes that are much more horrifying and terrible. So while this is currently my favorite book, I recommend that you do prepare yourself for things like violence (and I’m not talking Fight Club violence where its more vague, I’m talking that movie-going experience where you walk into the horror movie and all of a sudden there’s graphic displays of violence and now you know why the movie is rated R kind of violence) and sexual assault, amongst other darker themes. They all bring up important topics within the novel–in other words, they’re not used for shock-value–but they are still shocking to read.
That having been said. This book is amazing. If you can get past the darker parts and the sadness of the story, I think you’ll find that its message, along with its narration, make this more than a worthwhile book (after all, it did win the Pulitzer).
(And I can’t help myself, here’s another quote:)
They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fukú americanus, or more colloquially, fukú–generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World. -Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao