Junot Díaz

"The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte SEP 9, 2007)

In his brief wondrous life, Oscar “Wao” De León might not have known it—but he was the victim of a fukú. A fukú as Junot Díaz explains in his absolutely brilliant novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is a “curse or doom of some kind.”

Oscar Wao is a nerdy overweight kid who dreams of being the “Dominican Tolkien.” He is part of the Dominican Republic’s Diaspora and spends much of his restless formative years in Patterson, NJ moving away briefly for a college degree at Rutgers. As Díaz writes, Oscar “could write in Elvish, could speak Chakobsa, could differentiate between a Slan, a Dorsai, and a Lensman in acute detail, knew more about the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee, and was a role-playing game fanatic. Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to.”

Díaz supplements the narrative of Oscar’s life with those of other characters close to him—his beautiful sister Lola, who cares about him deeply, his one-time roommate at Rutgers, Yunior, his imposing tough-as-nails mother Belicia Cabral and even Oscar’s grandfather, Abelard.

In vivid prose that traces back to the DR (as he puts it), Díaz outlines the many ways in which the family’s past intersects with the country’s dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, who ruled with terror from 1930 until his assassination in 1961.

Years ago, Abelard gets severely beaten, tortured and imprisoned for what Trujillo considers treason—not feeding his eldest daughter to the dictator’s enormous sexual appetites. The fukú has been cast. And, as Díaz explains, the worst kind of fukú visited those who offended Trujillo. “It was believed, even in educated circles, that anyone who plotted against Trujillo would incur a fukú most powerful, down to the seventh generation and beyond,” he writes.

As proof of the fukú’s strength, Abelard’s one surviving daughter, Belicia, inadvertently falls in love with a gangster and is so severely abused as a result, that her only way out is to find her way to Nuevo York.

This curse is a powerful one. So it is no surprise that the fukú visits yet again—after all it can even reach America—and finds poor Oscar Wao. Incidentally, the Wao is a distortion of “Wilde.” Oscar’s travails in finding true love are plenty. He finds consolation in writing and churns out stories every spare minute, dreaming of writing a prize-winning quartet of science fiction novels.

Yunior, Oscar’s college roommate in Rutgers and a fellow DR expat, relates his interactions with Oscar in one rip-roaringly funny chapter. “I guess I should have fucking known,” recounts Yunior, “Dude used to say he was cursed, used to say this a lot, and if I’d really been old-school Dominican I would have (a) listened to the idiot, and then (b) run the other way.” Initially Yunior keeps an eye on Oscar as a way of winning his sister’s favors but you gradually realize he too really cares for Oscar. Before Oscar’s eventual death, you come to realize just how many different forces and characters end up shaping not just his, but any given life.

Díaz’s voice is lively, original, full of energy and so darned young. (Full disclosure: I have waited for Junot Díaz’s novel for years since his set of short stories, Drown, released in ‘96. Brief peeps in the New Yorker were not enough. I even Googled him obsessively for a while to find out when he was writing next. Two other authors whose work I have tracked this closely: Monique Truong and Aleksandar Hemon).

It is Díaz’s expert touch that can seamlessly integrate the most tragic Dominican history lessons, elements of pop culture, and immigrant angst all into one immensely readable whole. He also uses footnotes, especially in the beginning to explain his points. There is a lot of Spanish thrown in with the English but it didn’t distract me—someone who doesn’t know Spanish, although I imagine it would have made the reading experience even richer (if that is indeed possible in this novel!) if I did know the language.

In one sentence that runs into three whole pages, Díaz beautifully captures a summer Oscar spent back in Santo Domingo. Even if one might be tempted to think that this is verbal histrionics pushed to the max, it is not. Díaz’s prose never feels forced and is always flawless.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is easily tops on my list of the year’s best. With Oscar Wao, Díaz proves without a doubt that he has a wholly original voice—hip, irreverent, funny and above all, fiercely intelligent. Just please Mr. Díaz—don’t make us wait another ten years for your next novel. Because that would be one mean, bad-assed fukú we can all do without.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 578 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao at The New Yorker



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About the Author:

Junot  DíazJunot Díaz was born the Dominican Republic and moved the United States with his parents when he was six-years-old. He grew up in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Originally a history major, he completed his BA at Rutgers College in 1992, majoring in English and living in the creative writing dorm. He earned his MFA from Cornell University in 1995. Díaz has said he was stunned when he received an acceptance letter from Cornell because he had not applied there. Apparently his then-girlfriend applied on his behalf.

His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, which has listed him as one of the 20 top writers for the 21st century.

Díaz taught writing at City University of New York, Syracus in 1997 for 5 years. He now teaches creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is also fiction editor for Boston Review.

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