The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

March 1, 2009


Junot Díaz’s tar-black family comedy The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is one of the few reads that perfectly captures the wrenching agony associated with an involuntary social exile. Ostrasized by his peers due to excessive weight, acne, overall awkwardness, and a generous intelligence, the titular hero retreats into a cocoon of role-playing games, comic books, and drafts for an epic fantasy series. He yearns to connect with a female companion, only to sustain a regular “triple-zero batting average” (24). Díaz defines Oscar’s character with this desperately lonely pining – a harrowingly accurate depiction of the daily struggles and mounting depression faced by those for whom love is little more than a heavily idealistic, unattainable pipe dream. His story of blustering through life under the haze of an age-old Dominican curse is juxtaposed with those of his embittered mother, unfortunate grandfather, Amazonian sister, and her rightfully jilted lover.

In spite of the heft of the main subject matter, Díaz wraps it in an energetic, tragicomedic verneer – finding sarcastic, acidic humor in even the most brutal and disgusting scenes. No matter who narrates which chapter, he interjects commentary by a meta-narrator referring to himself as Uatu the Watcher – a reference to the Marvel character who plays a similar role in various comic series. Other allusions, both direct and indirect, to a wide span of science fiction and fantasy media flow throughout the narrative as a testament to Oscar’s immersion. Fortunately, Díaz weaves them into the novel in a way that enhances the story rather than falling upon pop culture references as a crutch. Though they play an integral role in Oscar’s characterization, the novel can still be thoroughly enjoyed by readers with little to no familiarization with the references in question. Had Díaz removed them completely, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao would remain a beautiful, biting, and lovingly crafted example of literature as art.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the novel was Díaz’s accounts of actual figures and events from Dominican history. Channeling his inner David Eggers, he interjects a battery of footnotes throughout the story providing interesting and insightful sociopolitical and socioeconomic contexts. “Didn’t know we [the Dominican Republic] were occupied twice in the twentieth century? Don’t worry, when you have kids they won’t know the U.S. occupied Iraq either” he acerbically quips on page 19, unafraid to introduce American audiences to new revelations. However, the most shocking and twisted tales come from his statements regarding the painfully real dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. Lusty and ruthless, Trujillo’s jackboots leave scarring footprints on Oscar’s ascendents and descendents alike. Though never himself seen in the story, his bloodthirsty underlings lurk throughout and initiate horrific, wrenching scenes of violence and terror. Yet in spite of the physical manifestations of the filial curse, Oscar and his family represent humanity’s ability to dredge itself up from having its body smashed into concrete and left for dead in a sugarcane field. They’re resiliant and defiant in the face of evil, and hold faith in the possibility of love even if it kills them to acquire it.

Bibliographic Information

Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007.

Further Reading

Oscar is the new poet laureate of our generation’s disenfranchised. He is our Cyrano de Bergerac. He is our Holden Caulfield. He is everything Ignatius Reilly fancied himself to be but never truly was. Men of internal beauties transcending their external grotesqueries (literal and/or figurative), though all too often they’re dismissed in favor of those possessing a more PR-friendly carriage. It’s a sickening abomination of love that threads itself through the centuries and will continue to do so – a universal theme whose prevalence remains lamentable.


[Diversity Rocks! Challenge Progress: 7/24]

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4 Responses to “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”

  1. Ara 13 Says:

    Having read other reviews, I’ve been shied from picking up this book even though I loved his collection of short stories. Will I be lost on the foreign language that other critics claim cannot be understood by context? Did you find that criticism to be exaggerated? Thanks. Ara

  2. Riot Says:

    I don’t think it’s exaggerated, actually. There’s no question that a lot of Spanish is tossed into the story, but not knowing any of the words or phrasing doesn’t really detract from enjoying the plot and story overall. They weren’t anything I couldn’t solve by looking through a dictionary or asking friends who speak the language. But some may not want to interrupt their reading rhythm, which is perfectly understandable, and for them it would probably be frustrating. I can see things from both sides here, but ultimately it wasn’t a problem for me. That’s just personal preference, however.

    I still wouldn’t miss out on this if you are interested in reading it. Great book.

  3. […] contemporary classics worthy of intense academic study and casual book club chit-chats. I actually reviewed the latter at my old book blog Burning Leaves, and it garnered a right fair amount of attention after winning […]

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