The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot DiazAuthor: Junot Diaz
Publisher: Faber and Faber (2008)
Number of Pages: 335
How long it took me to read: 10 days
Where I bought this book: Books for Amnesty, Mill Road, Cambridge
ISBN: 978-0-571-23973-3

Like a Moth to a Flame

There was no reason for me to read the book other than its appearance on the reading list of my MA Creative Writing.  We’d studied the opening paragraphs in class but, while its mysterious whispers of a legendary curse lurking in the New World had prodded my curiosity, I’d found little to suggest it was the kind of book I might voluntarily read.  There were, in fact, very few hints at all to the story onto which this roving, epic narrative would eventually narrow its scope.  But, having discovered it in the Books for Amnesty shop (striking a satisfying accord with the story’s human rights themes) and read the blurb’s description of the main character as a Tolkien-wannabe, a ‘ghetto-nerd,’  I realised it might offer more than just an appreciable exercise in writing techniques: it might be a story to which I could actually relate.

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Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “Oscar had like a zero combat rating.” (p.15)

4. “Knocked the architecture right out of his legs.” (p.29)

3. “Although not essential to our tale, per se, Balageur is essential to the Dominican one, so therefore we must mention him, even though I’d rather piss in his face.” (p.90)

2. “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.” (p.23)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “Rushdie claims that tyrants and scribblers are natural antagonists, but I think that’s too simple; it lets writers off pretty easy. Dictators, in my opinion, just know competition when they see it.  Same with writers.  Like, after all, recognizes like.” (p.97)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“Constant references to fantasy/sci-fi literature, comic books and role-playing games; frequent exclamations in Spanish; occasional acronyms that are never explained: the text of Oscar Wao is littered with them.  You have to wonder how many readers will understand them all—a tiny proportion of the readership.  This is a story of marginalisation: marginalisation of Dominican immigrants in the United States, their marginalisation at home under the Trujillo dictatorship, and Oscar’s personal marginalisation from, well, pretty much everybody!  By interrupting the narrative with such references, Diaz ensures that every reader who isn’t an obese, geekish, Dominican immigrant (or political historian) is likely to feel that same sense of isolation.  But crucially, he also ensures the story can still be followed.  No important plot point is narrated in Spanish or obscured by comic book imagery, the clarification of Santo Domingo history is extricated into footnotes, leaving the reader to decide for themselves if they want to learn more, and any references to more arcane culture always contain universal meaning.  ‘Oscar had like a zero combat rating’ (p.15) is a reference to role-playing games, but Oscar’s inability to fight is successfully conveyed regardless of whether the reader gets the reference.  Similarly, when we’re told, ‘That day what little faith Oscar had in the world took an SS-N-17 snipe to the head,’ (p.29) a picture of the exact rifle isn’t needed for the reader to hear the shot ring out, puncturing Oscar’s optimism.”

“Why is it I’m incapable of imagining an obese character without turning them into a comedic stereotype in my head?  What does that say about our cultural attitudes towards such people, that they can only be the subject of humour or scorn?  Or maybe this is just a personal reaction, an attempt by my subconscious to force humour onto the memories of childhood, when I spent most days subjected to this same ridicule.  Still, how many obese role-models or fictional heroes from popular culture can you think of? Perhaps the implied lack of self-discipline or the obvious physical limitations of a fat hero require too great a leap of the imagination (more than a millionaire dressed as a bat or an alien that can break the sound barrier and see through walls yet still chooses to work as a journalist, anyhow).  Oscar’s size certainly marks him out more than his status as an immigrant does.  It alienates him even from his own ethnic group, where only men who are willing and able to challenge for the crown of alpha-male are accepted without suspicion.”

“Speech in Oscar Wao all occurs within the text.  There are no speech marks, and dialogue isn’t always explicitly assigned to a particular character, yet it never becomes confusing. Rather, it gives a sense that any opinions or statements made are universal, belonging not just to an individual character but to the Dominican people:

“He shook his head solemnly.  I’m embarking on a new cycle of my life.” (p.30)

“Though the words are Oscar’s, they also speak of the new life for all the Dominicans; both in the US and in their own country, now free from grip of Trujillo.”

“Diaz’s details of sci-fi, fantasy and comic book lore (‘Like stumbling into the wizard Shazam’s cave or finding the crashed ship of the Green Lantern!’ (p.94)) set up a world where accepted facts and natural laws are malleable.  Oscar Wao’s ‘reality’ is a place where, no matter how much the reader thinks they know, the many cultural boundaries, government conspiracies and supernatural interventions determine that much of it remains a mystery.

“What’s certain is that nothing’s certain.  We are trawling in silences here.” (p.243)

“As the story unfolds, the accumulation of such references begins to have a different effect.  They invite us to acclimatise, to learn more about them, rather than to ignore them because we do not immediately understand.  This quest for knowledge culminates in the triumphal chapter, ‘Oscar goes native’ (p.276), the first sentence of which extends for nearly three pages, detailing every experience of Oscar’s first week in Santo Domingo.  He not only discovers his roots, but is swept along by the unfamiliar experience of belonging.  This extensive picture-postcard similarly sweeps the reader up in the ‘reality’ of the Dominican Republic, and away from any alienating references, obscure mythologies and scandalising conspiracies.  By the end of the book, we may not recall a single detail of this week, but its significance remains memorable: it is here that the narrative finally accepts us as well.”

“While the other books I’ve read for this course have all provided valuable lessons on how to write, this is the only one to remind me why I want to.  It’s about not forgetting, and not allowing to be forgotten, all those histories, people, places and ideas that can inform our lives, to warn us of the horrific dangers of the human experience and reassure us of its many becalming pleasures.”

Gareth Long

3 Comments

  1. John Geoghegan says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Perhaps it’s more of a guy’s read since it’s focused on so many guy-related issues. Guy-lit vs. chick-lit simplifies it too much, but I found it hard to put down. However, I can respect that it was a tough read for some, especially if you are coming to Junot Diaz for the first time. The best way to enter his work is by starting with “Drown,” his excellent collection of short stories. He not only writes well about a world most of us are unfamiliar with (the Dominican immigrant experience), he writes well period. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I very much enjoyed reading them.

  2. Mariateresa Bombardieri says:

    I’ve liked the analogy “to be left out of adolescence” and live in the darkness where “the sun appears for the 1st time in a hundred years” ….
    It made me thinking a lot …

  3. Kate says:

    Interesting insghts! I read this book for my book club and I have to say I found it rather difficult to look past the footnotes, the dialects, the sci-fi references and the Spanish interjections which I didn’t understand … It was a good read, but an uncomfortable one. I like your analysis about the text making the reader feel like an outsider, much like the characters in the book are.

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