The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Junot Díaz

“If you didn’t grow up like I did then you don’t know, and if you don’t know it’s probably better you don’t judge.”

Okay, I’m just going to come out and say it: I didn’t love this novel. There are several reasons why this book wasn’t my cup of tea, but first: a bit about the plot.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao follows “ghetto nerd” Oscar De León through his, you guessed it, brief and wondrous life. Oscar, whose mother emigrated from the Dominican Republic, grows up in New Jersey with his sister Lola and his mother and tries to navigate the woes of young adulthood as a dorky, overweight lover of all things “nerd.” His main mission in life is to find a girlfriend. Because life isn’t hard enough for Oscar, we also see the effects of the fukú, or the “curse of the New World” on Oscar and his family throughout their lives. This story is narrated by Oscar’s college roommate, Yunior, and features flashbacks to stories from his sister Lola, his mother Beli and his grandfather Aberald, which unfold together revealing a complex story of family, politics, love and violence both in the Dominican Republic and in New Jersey. The text also includes numerous footnotes from Yunior, providing his own commentary on the politics behind the story he is telling.

The main issue I have with this novel is the narrator, Yunior. I know there are some people who love him, some who hate him. I am definitely leaning toward the latter of the two. Yunior is a womanizing narrator whose commentary exhausted me. While I have read opinions that his humour helped lighten up an otherwise dark and intense story, I found his narration to be more of an assault on the story than a relief from it. To me, Yunior’s narration took away from this novel.

Another reason I didn’t really enjoy this book is as simple as this: I found that I didn’t really like any of the characters. I could sympathize with them, they had relatable quirks and some relatable experiences but, for whatever reason, I did not find myself falling for Oscar or his family. I read this book about three months ago and I am still unable to put my finger on exactly why this is the case, but we just didn’t connect.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao includes numerous references to “nerd” pop culture. For me, these references were another reason I found myself tiring of this novel. While I am a self-proclaimed book nerd, I admittedly have not seen Star Wars, Star Trek or the Marvel or DC movies (I haven’t read the comic books, either). There are tons of references to superheroes, comic books and video games that were completely lost on me throughout this book. Early on, I was looking up these references to understand the comparisons they were making, but this got too time-consuming and about a quarter of the way through the book I gave up and started to skim those sections.

Similarly, I found the use of Spanish slang a bit off-putting. I understand why Díaz made the choice to incorporate so much Spanish and Dominican slang in the novel, and I think it was a bold and rewarding choice. Intentionally alienating, I think this technique was a bit excessive for my own personal taste. Clearly, I am not in the majority when I say this feature was off-putting – North American audiences loved this book despite not being able to understand all of the words in it; the novel sold like crazy and won the Pulitzer Prize. For me, I felt like I was missing too much in the sections that are written in Spanish. I don’t know any Spanish, so I used Google Translate hoping that it would illuminate some of the meaning. I found that so much slang is used that most phrases are not translatable with Google. Again, I gave up on trying to uncover the meaning of these sections early on in the narrative.

Despite my many reasons I disliked this novel, there are definitely aspects of it that I liked. I loved the narrative choice of starting with Oscar and working our way backward through his family history and through Dominican Republic history. The novel blended a smaller family’s experience with a nation’s larger experience, giving a face to the political events unfolding in the background. This was very effective.

I also loved the historical detail provided in the novel. In an early footnote (page 3 in my edition), Yunior makes an astute point: “For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history . . .” Díaz knows that a large part of his audience will know very little, if anything at all, about the history that underscores his novel. He provides rich detail and commentary about the Trujillo regime and its effects on the Dominican Republic and its citizens both at home and abroad. I found this history fascinating.

Finally, I loved the footnotes. While I mentioned my feelings about Yunior earlier in this post, I will admit that the footnotes are my favourite part of this novel. For whatever reason, I found the irony, satire and humour in the extended footnotes enthralling and I very much enjoyed this aspect of the narrative style.

While this novel didn’t do it for me, I would highly recommend that you give it a fair chance. Despite my grievances, this is an incredibly well written and well-put-together book that tells a story from which we can all learn. Alongside the complex history of the Dominican Republic throughout the twentieth century and beyond, this novel addresses issues of gender, sexuality, body image, mental health, family relationships, romantic relationships, politics, writing, pop culture; the list goes on and on.

If nothing here has piqued your attention, let’s try this: after reading this novel I learned that the audiobook version is narrated by the one and only Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway show Hamilton. (Seriously, if you haven’t heard the cast recording of Hamilton, please visit iTunes right now. This review can wait. Everything else can wait.) I am now very tempted to buy the audiobook version of this book to give it another try . . .

Story: 5/10

Writing: 9/10

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