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The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

abstract:The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the story of a family from the Dominican Republic living in Brooklyn. It is a story about immigration and immigrants, integration and alienation, family and dictatorships—and how one thing doesn’t necessarily preclude the other. Oscar is a dorky, obese virgin obsessed with science fiction and fantasy books. He has a difficult time making friends and an impossible time getting girlfriends. In fact most of his life in the US is a string of embarrassments and disappointments, and his life is more or less insignificant.

"Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everybody's always going on about—he wasn't no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock. And except for one period early in his life, dude never had much luck with the females (how very un-Dominican of him)."

His sister Lola is fiery and rebellious, much like her apparently maligned mother Hypatia was, we learn later, in her youth. Lola marries Oscar’s one-time college roommate Yunior, the books most frequent narrator, and the story is told through his and each of the other 4 characters’ eyes variously throughout the novel. Because it’s usually Yunior, the Dominican college frat boy/jock telling the story, the language is a patois of east coast hip-hop inspired 20-something slang and Dominican expressions—you might want to have a Spanish-English dictionary handy, because asking the Spanish guy next to you on the plane what “galletazo” means resulted in a lot of blushing and awkward laughter (“bitchslap”) for this reader.


April 13, 2009
The story is told with a mixture of truth and irony, fantasy and reality. The interweaving of seemingly dissimilar narrative tools is one of the novels greatest strengths. As Diaz commented in an interview for NPR, “I think there was sort of this constant poetic in the book where I was trying to imprint the real with the crazy, or contaminate the real with all this nerdy narrative, and then the same way just doing the exact reverse—contaminating the nerdy with the painfully real.” We see this in the urban slang, the references to The Lord of the Rings and other fantasy books, and in the way the historical context of the homeland is told entirely in footnotes, sometimes an entire page in length. This manner of exploiting the footnote, usually a small fact, clarification or reference that would be out of place in the text, and using it as a space to shape an entire contextual history reminds one of Pale Fire in its mastery (Nobokov’s other masterpiece is a story told entirely in a series of footnotes to a 99 line poem in four cantos). So, while we are reading the story of Oscar’s family, we are also learning the history of the nation and the Trujillo Dictatorship that very directly influenced—or ended—the lives of the characters.

Wao is part of a number of books that tell distinctly North American stories of post-colonial cultural inheritance and hyphenated identity. As Jhumpa Lahiri describes in Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, there is a great disconnect between first generation immigrants and the second generation, who are neither Indian nor American but a new identity: Indian-American. In the same way the line is blurred between funny and serious, comic and tragic, shockingly real and dismissively fantastical, it is as though the author is emphasizing the identity of an immigrant, and in fact all people, is likewise amorphous and complex. The interloper or outsider is of course a common literary device, from Romeo and Juliet in each other’s houses, to Levin in Russian Society, to, dare I say, the Hobbit in Middle Earth. Characters that don’t belong or fit in are eventually “explained” through their history; Hypatia’s cruelty, Lola’s volatility, Oscar’s isolation. (Psychoanalytical literary analysts would have a field day with this text!) So in the end we see that things are much more complex, rich, and nuanced than at first sight. There are layers of personal and cultural experience, influence, and memory to each character, and in the end it’s not usually a case of one or the other but a Hegelian “both.”

Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to New Jersey as a teenager. He teaches Creative Writing at MIT and has published a collection of short stories under the title Drown. It took Diaz a decade to write Wao.

Wao won the John Sargent Senior First Novel Prize, the Massachusetts Book Prize, the Dayton Peace Prize in Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award and of course the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008. The Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has been option by Miramax September 2007 and will become a feature film.

Podcast of Diaz reading from Wao: Junot Diaz’ Website.

YouTube Video of Junot Diaz



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