The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – by Junot Díaz

Title: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Author: Junot Díaz
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Year Published: 2007
Pages: 340

First Line: They say it first came 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.

Well, here’s a first – I don’t know where to start.

There’s so much going on in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao I find it difficult to figure out a way to do justice to Díaz’s work. Winner of the Pulitzer in 2008 and a host of other awards, the novel, Díaz’s first, has received enough praise and deconstruction without me getting either a) all gushy, or, b) all critical. Instead, I suppose I’ll just focused on the 3 things that I immediately took away from it.

First and foremost, the narrative voice is quite simply astounding. Even though I knew next to nothing about the Dominican Republic, its culture, or its people, I was thoroughly entranced from the very first sentence. The fact that for the first third of the book I was a little unclear about who the narrator even was didn’t bother me in the least. The rhythm, the styling, the kind of patois that Diaz establishes all sucked me in. This is a novel I had difficulty putting down, not because of the storylines – after all, we know from the title how everything works out at the end – but in the manner in which those storylines are narrated.

The storylines themselves, while interesting, I found of lesser overall importance than the themes being discussed. This is, ultimately, an extremely intelligent “coming of age” story. It’s about the discovery, formation, and acceptance (or not) of individual identity, and the cultural, political, and interpersonal influences that can help or hinder those efforts. Particular attention is paid to the sexual aspects of self-identification, and the raw sexuality exhibited throughout the novel is, in places, nearly overpowering. The essence, it seems, of being a young Dominican, whether male or female, is rooted in sexual prowess and bravado.

Which is where the heart of the story is also rooted. Oscar de Leon, dubbed Wao by his Rutgers roomate (and sister’s sometimes boyfriend) Yunior, is the antithesis of the (stereo?)typical Dominican male. In a nutshell, when it comes to “game,” he has none, and the crux of his storyline slowly evolves from his desire to find love to his desire to get laid before he dies. Yet even though he is the title character, I’m not thoroughly convinced The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is actually Oscar’s story.

This is a book I need to read, and re-read, and re-read again. Since I turned that last page over a week ago, I have found myself thinking about what, or who, this novel is actually about. Though it chronicles Oscar’s life and death, I don’t think it’s actually “about” Oscar at all. I think, on the other hand, it may actually be about Yunior, our narrative voice. Though Yunior is telling the history of the de Leon family, by the end of the novel it is evident – to me, anyway – that he is actually telling the story of his own life and of the effect a particular family had upon his own “coming of age.” In the end, he becomes the protagonist and a symbol for, I think, the state of change the Dominican population – perhaps specifically the male Dominican population – is currently going through. Steadfast through the majority of the novel, especially in his views concerning sexuality, the evolution of Yunior is, perhaps, the most profound of the major characters, and most certainly a direct result of the intellectual and psychological influences and obstacles forced upon him by Oscar, Lola, and the pervasive Dominican culture as a whole.

Again, I have no idea right now if any of that holds any water. It’s what I walked away with, and it’s the thought that has kept returning to me since I closed the book. Regardless, what I like most is that I am still thinking about The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It’s been a while since a book has stayed with me as long as this one has, and I am looking forward to re-reading it with a more critical eye from a new perspective.

One quick note for my genre-reading friends…

This is not a genre book. This is not sci-fi, or fantasy, or horror. There are references to all those genres, as Oscar – and, in his own way, Yunior – is obsessed with it all, but the novel itself is none of those things. That said, the references are part of the overall beauty of the narrative voice, especially in the chapters that concern Oscar. His obsession, love of writing fantasy stories, and all-around geekery is pathetically charming, and I can recommend it based on these qualities alone.

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