I swear that I have had The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in my hands, in line to check out, at the counter, with my debit card out ready to pay for it, at least five or six times in the past year. It is, across the board, the novel I always think, “I should read that” more than any other novel, and also the novel I just end up saying “no” to the most. It has not been an active “no.” I have not gone out of my way to avoid reading Diaz’s supposed masterpiece, I have just consistently found ways to bother reading something else entirely. However, recently having walked into Half-Price Books with the idea of spending at least thirty bucks in hopes of getting my hands on several award winning novels that my fellow humans have mistakenly bought in hopes of a simple beach read and wound up turning in for cash or credit, I found, among speculation on Naked Lunch and other mind-trips, Junot Diaz’s novel and decided enough was enough; I needed to buy the book.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has something going for it that few books have at this particular moment in history: uniqueness. And this uniqueness which inhabits it makes the relativity typical family history that inhabits the pages of Wao something wonderful to behold. Much of this uniqueness is thanks to the narrator of the novel, Yunior, whose voice is both insightful and delightfully crude and normal. The prose of Wao makes no attempt to portray what is expected from the typical, Literary American tradition. Instead, Yunior’s voice is the voice of a person you run into on the street, telling a story in aphorisms and expressions you may or may not have heard before, but likely never in this context. And it is the way in which the story is told that makes a book about a character that would likely fail to be memorable in most instances, cherishable and compelling.
To boil it down, Wao is a novel about Oscar Wao, Dominican-American man who atypically – according to Yunior – has absolutely no game. As the joke is commonly expressed, Oscar might just be the first Dominican man to ever die a virgin. Yet this is not due to Oscar’s lack of trying. The problem with Oscar, once again, depending upon who you ask, is that he is a member of the Cabral family, every member of which has been cursed with a Fuku by the now deceased dictator of the Dominican Republic, El Trujillo. And this Fuku is a larger focal point of Wao than Oscar Wao himself. Of the 335 pages in my edition, less than 150 are spent with Oscar. The majority of the novel is actually a history of Oscar’s mother and her father, Abelard – who brought the curse upon the family when he refused to let Trujillo sleep with his oldest daughter. These portions of the book are filled with footnotes (interesting footnotes that, for once, do not just feel like a rip off of David Foster Wallace and truly enhance the novel).
The reader’s experience of Oscar actually comes not through Oscar – who we never have the thoughts of, and who has very few lines of dialogue, all of which are hysterical in their oddness – but through the enormous impact Oscar must have had on Yunior, who, despite retaining the manner of the jock he made himself out to be when he first encountered Oscar, makes the sort of references you would expect Oscar to make. The novel is filled to the brim with analogies to The Lord of the Rings (Trujillo is often described as though he is Sauron), Dune, and Dungeons and Dragons (when people run into Trujillo’s secret police and get beaten to near death, it is usually mentioned the amount of hit points they lost in the ordeal). And in a way, the enormous amount of references to Oscar, the way that Oscar holds people together from a distance, represents the point of the novel. There is absolutely nothing about Oscar Wao’s life that is deserving of the title of the novel, but it is his absurdity, his paradoxical normal uniqueness, that binds so many people together who came into contact with him. It’s difficult to know whether or not Oscar breaks the Fuku on the Cabral family, but it is his choice to not accept the Fuku’s control of his life, to refuse the tough breaks and follow his heart, that makes him the most wondrous of all the characters involved.
Diaz’s novel is a delight, a wonderful experience of human bond found in the most unlikely of places. It is a testament to the fact that even at your lowest you matter more to those around you than you could possibly comprehend. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a novel that many people, even if they don’t realize it, need.
Recommended to: This book is a nerd’s delight. It carries within it all aspects, from the special joy to the contempt and loneliness.
Avoid as if it’s an angry kangaroo: There is a lot of crudeness in the novel, and while I don’t care, I’ve met enough people in my life that would be distracted by it that I feel the need to warn them.