The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

I honestly had no expectations, and somehow still, this book screwed with my them. My initial expectations only came from what I can deduct from the title, that is it is about Oscar Wao, some Asian kid maybe, and that he’s going to die young. Spoiler alert, if you haven’t made the same deduction from the title, the only expectation that I got right was that he died young. But for the rest, I’d argue that actually there is nothing wondrous about Oscar’s life. He’s not Asian, he’s American with Dominican background and he’s the biggest you’d ever know if he was a real person. Plus, the book is not so much about him but his immediate family and heritage.

I learn more sometimes reading fiction than I do reading non-fiction books. I learned from Oscar Wao more about the Dominican Republic than I did from the Economist. We jump back and forth in the book from present day to times past, where the Cabrals and the De Leon were still living in Dominican Republic. There is a lot of history in this book about the region, and it is an absolute clinic on the recent history of the Trujillo era from the 1930s and beyond. What’s more the book retold these historical accounts with its own characters, brushing shoulders with the historical characters. Thus, we learn the impact Trujillo had on Dominican families.

Sex, apparently, is a vital part of the Dominican culture that it also drives the book. The events subsequent to the novel are really because some dude tries to put his thing in some other chica’s thing, like when Trujillo tried to elope with Abelard Cabral’s daughter, how Belí is condemned to live in America because she traded fluids with the wrong muchacho, or how Oscar’s abrupt end is also because of sex and the want for it. Yes, there is a lot of screwing in this book and the talk of it. Trujillo had a terrifying reputation of getting who he wants when he wants, with dire consequences for those who refuse.

We learn a lot about Dominican history from the footnotes where Díaz described in anecdotes the historical characters briefly mentioned in the course of the story, how they are related to other significant Dominican players in its history. I am not a fan of footnotes in general, but adds a lot to the story when done right (like in the case of Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell). Díaz’s tone is also unique, as though he is telling the story to you in a pub three beers deep. He’s swearing as a narrator, his language is curt, sharp and quickly comprehensible. It is delivered as though he was writing for his own sake, and he is embittered for a long time and was looking for an audience to throw his cynicism towards. This book is the product of that. I do have an issue with his use of the N word, sometimes mentioning it as though he was calling the reader that, or another character. The main characters in this book, after all, are chocolate dark. But I think this word is misdirected and I can argue, appropriated. I didn’t think it was necessary to use it.

The weakness of the book however, is not in its tone, but its cohesion. And the biggest weakness of the book for me, really is in the title character. Oscar is the son of Belí, an immigrant. He is raised in the Dominican way, but he is also enamored by Western popular culture in comic books, dungeons and dragons, sci-fi (Akira and Virus are his favourites) that he is a gigantic nerd. After he was heartbroken from a very young age, he just gave up on life and just started to become obese, and keeps becoming obese. There are episodes in the middle of the story when he tried to better himself physically and just downright gives up. And he doesn’t have any friends.

Am I being harsh when I say I cannot relate to Oscar because he’s a fat nerd? But I don’t think that’s it because I just don’t think he’s got any spine, not until towards the end of the book at least, and by that time I couldn’t care less and his transformation became unbelievable. Maybe it is for the better part of the book that Oscar is not constantly on the spotlight, and I find Lola, his capricious sister to be more interesting and more believable.

And it doesn’t tie in. Oscar and his geekiness, and the rest of the story of the Dominican Republic in such a pivotal era, I fail to see the connection. I think it ties in at the end sure, no spoilers here. But Oscar really is the subversion of what a Dominican is supposed to be — handsome, promiscuous and confident. Oscar is a non-reminder that culture can lead to toxic masculinity.

But who is to say that I didn’t enjoy the book? It is highly readable, highly educational, especially if you are learning Spanish and want to pick up some Dominican Spanish slang as well as learning about the Dominican Republic in the Twentieth Century. Credit where credit’s due, Díaz wrote about an important subject matter that often gets swept underneath the rug. And for such a serious subject matter, he managed to make it a cynical and funny book.

A full time project manager who loves to read on the side. Connect with me to chat anything tech and lit.