Oscar De Leon’s life is interesting, maybe not necessarily wondrous, though. Oscar is the textbook definition of a tragic character — an overweight, science-fiction obsessed super-nerd who is unable to fulfill his Dominican manliness by scoring a lady — he’s just not a particularly captivating one. Thankfully, in Junot Diaz’s first full length novel, The “Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Oscar isn’t really the main character.
A short story writer originally, Diaz seems to run into a bit of trouble keeping his various characters’ stories connected throughout the book. Oscar’s mother, sister, grandmother, and others fill the novel with tales of woe, whether it is in the Dominican Republic, the bowels of New Jersey, or on some spectral plane in between. These tales are all interconnected in that the characters are involved in each others lives, really though, the only true connection Diaz consistently investigates is the idea of a “fuku,” or Dominican curse. The fuku, which has purportedly followed the family since before Oscar’s mother was put up for adoption, is all a direct result — at least in the case of the De Leon’s — of a man named Rafael Trujillo.
It is Trujillo who provides a great deal of the most interesting story line in the book. The real-life dictator of the Dominican Republic who terrorized his country from 1930 until his assassination in 1961 (and whose influence still looms), was the primary cause in the destruction of the otherwise pristine and comfortable life led by Oscar’s real grandparents, Abelard and Socorro Cabral. Diaz weaves fact and fiction together, making sure to include detailed descriptive information about those events that are real in the form of thorough footnotes. It is Trujillo’s interest in the teenage sister of Oscar’s mother that leads to some of the most brutal and, subsequently, most well-written chapters of the novel.
Narrated (at times with confusion) by Yunior, the on-again, off-again boyfriend of Oscar’s sister Lola, the story jumps from one time period to another with little logic. Always returning to Oscar’s feeble and commonly embarrassing attempts to have his love for a woman reciprocated, it’s hard to read the book and not be disappointed when it returns to telling the story of Oscar himself. The life of Oscar probably only takes up half of the book, with his family filling the other half, but it is amazing how different the two halves are from each other. One half is filled with amazing stories of love, loss, disaster and strife, and the other is filled with an awkward boy who references “The Lord Of The Rings” too much. The parts of Oscar’s life which are truly wondrous and riveting are few and far between and greatly outshadowed by the lives of his relatives.
Style wise, Diaz shows his Dominican roots by making every 20th word or so Spanish, and at times uses whole phrases without translating them for the reader. There are few context clues to help understand what is being said, either. This makes the reader feel like an outsider looking in at an unfamiliar life — that of a poor Dominican immigrant in the United States.
At times heartbreakingly sweet, at others, aggravatingly free of any discernable and worthwhile plot, it’s hard to champion or condemn “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” One thing is for certain though, Junot Diaz has done a wondrous job creating several very enthralling short stories in his first novel. Fuku or not, these stories bring lifes real tragedies to light, and for that Diaz should be championed.
Please visit SPLALit aStore