Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

Oscar Wao is a Dominican sci-fi/fantasy nerd growing up in New Jersey in the 1980s.  The high point of Oscar's romantic life comes when he is seven and has two girlfriends for the span of a week. By the time he reaches his teen years, he is overweight, believes he is destined to be the Dominican Tolkien, and so geeky he seems destined to be a virgin forever.  He goes to Rutgers, where he continues to have a stunted social life and tries to commit suicide; the attempt is unsuccessful, however, and he graduates from college, returns to live with his mother and teach at the high school he hated. Then, on a fateful summer visit to the Dominican Republic, he falls in love with a semi-retired puta, whose boyfriend is a brutal police officer.

Despite this recounting of the events of Oscar's life, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is really the story of Oscar's family, the de Leons. Diaz creates a cast of seemingly cursed characters (the fuku) that includes Oscar's beautiful and talented sister Lola; his mother Beli, whose tragic and rebellious youth is unknown to her children, who know her as rigidly strict and chronically ill; his physician grandfather Abelard, who was killed trying to protect his daughters from the rapacious dictator Trujillo. Through the multigenerational family history, Diaz also recounts the history of the Dominican Republic under Trujillo's brutal regime--as well as the story of the diaspora.

The story is told by two narrators. The first--and most prominent--is not identified until well into the book, although it is clear he knows both Oscar and Lola well. He is Yunior, a sometime boyfriend of Lola's and Oscar's college roommate. He, too, is an important character in the novel--and his relationship to the de Leons clearly shapes him. Yunior's narration is liberally laced with untranslated Spanish; obscenities and hipster street slang; pop culture references--to sci fi/fantasy/anime novels, movies, and comic books;  ruminations on Dominican history and mythology; and references to serious literature. Yunior tells Oscar's story in chronological order but intersperses it with the family history told from the more recent past to the most distant.

The second narrator is Lola. Although her sections are relatively brief, her voice (especially as read by Staci Snell in the audio version) is winning--vulnerable, tender, and wise. As a female reader who is not  hip or particularly geeky, I wished for more of Lola's voice, as her story was my favorite part of the book. In fact, I wondered if I would have enjoyed Beli's story more if Diaz had given her her own voice  (raising some questions in my mind about why Diaz decided to include Lola as a narrator but left everyone else's story in Yunior's hands).

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is not for everyone; I know some of my book group colleagues would cringe at he language. Others would find the geek culture references indecipherable. While I certainly did not understand all the references (or the Spanish), I did admire the way in which Diaz put together a rich, multifaceted narrative populated with three-dimensional characters, presented in a 21st-century mash-up style.

Favorite passages:

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.

Poor Oscar. Without even realizing it he’d fallen into one of those Let’s-Be-Friends Vortexes, the bane of nerdboys everywhere. These relationships were love’s version of a stay in the stocks, in you go, plenty of misery guaranteed and what you got out of it besides bitterness and heartbreak nobody knows. Perhaps some knowledge of self and of women. Perhaps.

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