Thursday, February 7, 2013
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz: A review
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao racked up most of the major literary awards when it came out in 2007, including the Pulitzer. It was hailed as a tour de force by most critics. Now that I've finally gotten around to reading the book, I have to agree. It is an amazing work.
This was Junot Diaz's first novel. Of course, since then he's written another greatly acclaimed book, This Is How You Lose Her. I'm putting it on my "to be read" list.
We meet Oscar as an amazingly sweet-tempered, grossly obese teenage geek who lives in a fantasy world of gaming, anime, comics, and Lord of the Rings with his rebellious older sister and his Dominican mother in Paterson, New Jersey. Oscar dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien. Most of all, he dreams of finding love. He falls in love repeatedly, usually with the most highly inappropriate females, but his sentiments are never returned. He's never been kissed.
Things are not easy for this immigrant Dominican family. The mother works two and three jobs to support the family. The father is out of the picture - never been in the picture, really. The mother seems incapable of showing tenderness to her two teenage children, although it is apparent that she does love them fiercely. The arc of her life was bent early on in the Dominican Republic under the vicious dictator Trujillo. Her family, which had been upper middle class, was destroyed. She was the sole survivor, but she, too, was marked for life, both physically and mentally.
The family ever after feels itself cursed by something called the Fukú. The curse has doomed the family to torture, unjust imprisonment, tragic accidents, and ill-starred love affairs. Can Oscar possibly escape its effects?
The tumultuous history of Oscar's family and his own life are shown to us with humor and with warm and affectionate insight into the Dominican-American experience. Moreover, we are impressed again with the human capacity to endure and to persevere in the face of mind-boggling physical pain, tragedy, heartbreak and loss. All of this is slowly revealed to the reader by a narrator who is only gradually identified as Yunior, a friend and lover of Oscar's sister, Lola, and a friend and sometime roommate at Rutgers of Oscar's.
Throughout all the turmoil of Oscar's life, the things that remain constant are his devotion to his sister Lola, her devotion to him, and his need to express himself in writing. We might add to that his search for love. He wants a relationship with a woman so badly, but he seems doomed to die a virgin.
The ties of the American Dominican community to their country of origin are strong. Oscar and his family return to the D.R. from time to time, particularly at times of crisis, and visit with their abuela, La Inca. It was she who saved Oscar's and Lola's mother as a child when all the rest of her family was destroyed. She is in many ways the glue which holds the remnant of the family together. This family may be cursed, but it is also a family of strong women who will not allow it to be utterly destroyed.
These are all vivid characters and we get to know them intimately through the voice of Yunior. It is a straightforward but passionate voice.
This book is replete with cultural references to comics, anime, superheroes, and especially to J.R.R. Tolkien. I got the Tolkien ones, but I'm sure I missed some of the others that I was less familiar with; however, I never felt that I was missing something important. I was always able to discern meaning through context. Also, there are sentences and phrases in Spanish sprinkled throughout the text, but my college Spanish was generally up to the task of figuring out what was meant.
Junot Diaz writes with compassion and understanding about the Dominican-American community and about the life of the perpetual outsider. The nerd. The dork. The one who always gets picked last for the team. The one who never gets kissed. It is a life which many of us can relate to and for which we can have empathy. We badly want Oscar to finally win, but we strongly suspect that isn't going to happen. Diaz keeps us turning those pages to find out.