Book Review: “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz

I don’t know if y’all know, but I love me some Junot Diaz.

I discovered him my second year of college when we read a story from Drown in my fiction writing class. Instead of being frustrated by the lack of a glossary or footnotes for the Spanish interjections, I was enthralled. Diaz unapologetically throws you head first into his culture, watches you flounder around for a bit, then shrugs while walking away with his writing.

It really feels like you get dropped in the middle of the Dominican Republic with no map.

It’s only scary if you let it overwhelm you, instead of letting it embrace you.

The opening about fuku, the curse, sets the tone for the entire story. The supernatural element gave me some Central American magical realism vibes–*happy sigh*, I knew it was gonna be a great ride. Now, if you’ve never read magical realism, let that be the first thing you do after reading Oscar Wao.  I recommend 100 Years of Solitude or The House of the Spirits. 

Having read a lot of Diaz’s other works first, I opened the book looking for Yunior. To nobody’s surprise, the book actually opens with narration by Oscar. …However, Yunior does follow close behind. Very reminiscent of 100 Years of Solitude, the narration bounces between different members of the family and their part in the overarching theme, in this case, the fuku.

While the novel itself is called The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Oscar’s presence is only at the forefront maybe a solid third of the time. We get wrenched out his point of view, into Lola’s, then thrown backward in time to hear about Belicia’s salacious teenage years, and of course, because it would not be a Diaz work without him, we get the crudeness of Yunior’s narrative.

I love the rhythm of this work. They aren’t the kind of stories that you curl up next to your mother before bedtime to hear, though; they’re the stories your grandfather grabs you by your arm and sets you roughly down on a stool to hear, because you need to. Diaz writes to a family rhythm, a rhythm that not everyone can understand, but can at least enjoy. Each character is so distinctive, you can find a point at random, and figure out who is narrating within a few lines.

What’s most poignant about Diaz is that he writes about otherness in a way that isn’t other-ing. Oscar’s weight, his personality, his interests all make him a living personification of foreignness. These are all things that he knows, but Diaz simply weaves these truths about Oscar’s life into his narrative. The truth about other cultures is that from the outside, everyone looks different, but from the inside, what really feels so alien? I share Oscar’s love of sci-fi, his sister’s need to escape, and I know the look Yunior gives Oscar for his “proper speech” patterns all too well. Who doesn’t understand love, and loss, and dysfunctional families? Who doesn’t understand the struggle? 

Diaz makes the tough nitty gritty stuff still sound like music; his sentences read like a mambo and pack punches like 1980s rap.

I’m appreciative of Diaz’s honesty. It reminds me a bit of Baldwin– what’s a good story without some social critique? How are we to do better without acknowledging what’s going wrong? What makes a revolution, after all? It’s not the acceptance of the status quo, that’s for sure.

I think, though, I’d struggle if asked what exactly the novel is about. After about 50 pages, the story’s not even about Oscar and his girl troubles, and his books, and his weight. I mean, really, the story’s about the fuku, which as an American that expects the book to be about the title character, I still struggle with that. But as someone who understands that the best stories often extend beyond the person in question…Diaz kills the game.

A great, fun read–100% would recommend. All I’ll say is…the ride is pretty wild sometimes. But who doesn’t love a great adventure?

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