The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

This is an engaging, entertaining, crude and tumultuous story about a Dominican boy who moved to the US. It is told from the perspective of his friend, and uses a lot of language not found in polite society. Given that, it’s a romp through a culture and sub-culture to explore family dynamics and the power of sexuality, identity, and love. Junot Diaz wrote a fascinating book, and if you are okay with some rough language and enjoy fiction (lots of Tolkien and other sci-fi references), then I’d certainly recommend this book.

The novel starts with talking about Oscar, then moves on to telling the story of his sister Lola, and then tells the story of their mother, and cycles among them for the rest of the book. There are a lot of references to the typical Dominican man being excessively sexual, and much of the focus for women is their bodies and how they flaunt it. The novel is clearly something out of step with what I typically read, but the language was both coarse and engaging, and ultimately there was a good storyline. Oscar struggled for years with his weight and with being a sci-fi nerd, which led him to never getting with a woman. He moved to New Jersey where he continued his education, but even that didn’t help him much. Attending college gave him initial hope, but even then his imagination ran far past his actual interactions with women. Most summers, he visited Santo Domingo to see his grandmother, where he focused on writing sci-fi novels and avoiding actual human interactions. While in college he attempted suicide, but due to good graces, he landed somewhere that only broke bones. On one of his last visits to Santo Domingo, he developed a relationship with an older woman, who was also with an older man. Everyone warned him away from her, but he persisted. The boyfriend had cronies beat him to within inches of life, and he ended up back in New Jersey to recover. His final trip to the DR led him back to her house, and they ended up taking a weekend trip together, where she kissed him and all the rest. So — he finally became a “man” in the Dominican sense, and was shortly thereafter killed.

While it is a gratuitous book in some senses, it also has a lot of fascinating dimensions that weave together. For example: the author occasionally uses asides to address the reader; the author frequently intertwines action with Dominican beliefs about spirits and luck; he makes interesting commentary (“oh, you didn’t know the US invaded the Dominican Republic twice in the 20th century? That’s okay, your children won’t know the US invaded Iraq in the 21st”). It seems as if a lot of it is based on historical fact, but I didn’t bother to fact-check any of it.

My big takeaway was probably how he would describe a scene, and then propose it as either good luck or bad luck, depending on how it is viewed — usually in a short-term or long-term binary. There were facts, and then there was perspective; and in this book, it was either a hex or a blessing. It’s a type of reminder that says life isn’t only about pure fact and objective reality — life is much more about the perspective we have on it, the stories we fit into a consistent narrative, and highlighting the good and avoiding the bad.