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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
“On the outside, Oscar simply looked tired, no taller, no fatter, only the skin under his eyes, pouched from years of quiet desperation, had changed. Inside, he was in a world of hurt. He saw black flashes before his eyes. He saw himself falling through the air. He knew what he was turning into. He was turning into the worst kind of human on the planet: an old bitter dork. Saw himself at the Game Room, picking through the miniatures for the rest of his life. He didn't want this future but he couldn't see how it could be avoided, couldn't figure his way out of it.
*May be some small spoilers, but I will not reveal the ending.
Published in 2007, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao became an instant best-seller on the New York Times book list, and in 2008 it received a Pulitzer Prize award, which I personally feel was well deserved. The book is a work of fiction by Junot Diaz, but the story does parallel aspects of the author's life; Oscar's family is originally from the Dominican Republic, living under notorious dictator Trujillo, but grew up in New Jersey, as did the author. Before introducing the characters, the omniscient narrator (only omniscient for some of the novel) provides an introduction which includes some background information on the state of the Dominican Republic in the various times in which the story takes place, and some information on a common belief among the Dominican people which plays a large role in the story. Like most cultures, the Dominicans believed in curses, and in this culture specifically it was called fukú (It took me awhile to notice the irony of a possible pronunciation of this curse). Oscar and his family, around whom the story revolves, have supposedly been victims of this curse for generations, and it makes frequent reappearances in their lives.
This story follows the life of Oscar de Leon, a slightly overweight, socially-awkward Dominican-American living in Paterson, New Jersey with his sister, Lola, and his mother Hypatia. Oscar is what one may consider a "stereotypical nerd", obsessed with sci-fi and fantasy novels and movies, a frequent comic book reader and collector, among immersing himself in countless other non-maintstream hobbies. He is also an avid writer, which he pursues at Rutgers, and he makes multiple attempts (all failed) to get his sci-fi novels read and published. Oscar is obsessed with the idea of falling in love, seemingly with any and every girl he lays eyes on. Unfortunately, he is incapable of having a normal conversation with girls his entire life. He is consistently "friend-zoned" by the girls he falls in love with... and this is Oscar (Picture the Big Bang Theory but in the Caribbean).
The narrator switches from Oscar's story to the story of his family members throughout the novel, one of which is Oscar's sister, Lola. The two are very close. Lola and her mother have a terrible relationship, and Lola's life is one big dramatic run-away after another. It is obvious that the only thing that keeps her coming back is Oscar.
The history of Oscar and Lola's mother, Hypatia (though frequently referred to as Beli), is a disturbing and sad one. Her real parents having been killed during the reign of the monstrous dictator, Trujillo, she spent the first nine years of her life with horrid people who abused her nearly to death. Once under the care of La Inca (her father's cousin) she is able to start a new life for herself, one with many ups and downs, experiences, lovers, and heartbreaks. We also learn about her father, the intelligent doctor, Abelard. Living during the reign of Trujillo, whose reputation for seeking and acquiring through any means necessary any woman or young girl he desired terrified Abelard, for he had a wife and two beautiful daughters of his own. In an effort to conceal his daughters, Abelard was eventually imprisoned and despite his high standing in society, he received the most brutal treatment and eventually died in prison.
The story goes back to Oscar and the remaining days of his "Brief and Wondrous Life", but I don't want to give away too much of that.
I can't impress enough how incredible I thought this novel was. The focus on folklore and story-telling, the various Spanish dialects, the dispersing of the Dominican people after a damaging governmental takeover, and the tales of oppression and personal emotional struggle makes for one of the most moving novels I have ever read.
A note on the language & style
I struggled a little bit at first while reading this book. I felt the need to have a language conversion book/app at hand while reading, due to the mix of languages throughout. The style of this book was casual to say the least; very much so told in an every-day speaking voice. Composed of Dominican/Spanish slang, profanities, and other vulgarities, it was different than any other book I have read, but that is not a bad thing. The language choice made the book the cultural icon that it has been praised to be. It doesn't take away from it, as some might imagine, but only adds to its cultural richness and pathos.
Folklore at its finest, the book really delves into the spiritual beliefs of the Dominican people. Aside from the story itself, the lucrative footnotes on most pages enlighten the reader with added historical information that although not pertinent to the story, still provides useful context. It can only be of benefit to receive insight into the lives of people of other cultures, and this book does an incredible job of giving us that.
“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 women.”
"She would be a new person, she vowed. They said no matter how far a mule travels it can never come back a horse, but she would show them all."
"-Nothing else has any efficacy, I might as well be myself.
- But your yourself sucks!
- It is, lamentably, all I have."
"Before all hope died I used to have this stupid dream that shit could be saved, that we would be in bed together like the old times, with the fan on, the smoke from our weed drifting above us, and I'd finally try to say the words that could have saved us."
"As expected: the daughter of the Fall, recipient of its heaviest radiation, loved atomically."
"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."
"But if these years have taught me anything it is this: you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in.”
"Beli at thirteen believed in love like a seventy-year-old widow who's been abandoned by family, husband, children and fortune believes in God."
"Love was a rare thing, easily confused with a million other things, and if anybody knew this to be true it was him."
"Sucks to be left out of adolescence, sort of like getting locked in the closet on Venus when the sun appears for the first time in a hundred years."
"It’s never the changes we want that change everything."
Junot Diaz is a Dominican-American author, born in Santo Domingo and raised in New Jersey (similar to Oscar). Currently, Diaz lives in New York City and is a professor at MIT. On top of being a novelist and a professor, Diaz is a fiction editor for the Boston Review. His immigrant experiences aided some of his best writing, and he is known most widely for this novel (Brief and Wondrous Life) which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008. He also published one other novel and multiple short stories.
For more in-depth information, see Junot Diaz's main website here.