Starting a review for a book as broad and ambitious as Junot Diaz's, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is not easy. I’ve written and deleted over half a dozen first paragraphs for this review. To get to the heart of what this book is all about is a very difficult task; like trying to get your hands on greased up hog. Junot Diaz is able to mash-up the experiences of American immigrants with atrocities the people of Dominican Republic faced under Rafael Trujillo, and the heartbreaking experiences of one overweight, hopelessly nerdy, Dominican American.This is a book about, amongst many other things, the tyranny of unrequited love and the tyranny of evil men. It's a book about surviving life's hardships and heartbreaks, and how impossible it all can be.
Oscar, for whom the book is named after, grows up in New Jersey, and from the get-go is a romantic fool that is always falling in love with women that do not reciprocate the feelings. Our hero has always had a weight problem, and wasn’t given a whole lot of help from the genetic lottery despite the fact that his mother and sister are gorgeous. Poor Oscar, we watch him grow up under a torrential downpour of harassment. He seeks refuge in the transformative power of the works of Tolkien, Alan Moore, and the endless adventures of old school role playing games. You can imagine how these hobbies, in combination with his weight and looks, went over with the ladies - which is not good for our hero, given how prone he is to fall head-over-heels.
The story in this Oscar Wao shifts between the lives of Oscar, his mother Belicia, his sister Lola and his best friend Yunior, who is also the stories narrating voice. One of the central themes of this book is a curse that runs through Oscar's family history. This curse is known to Dominicans as fuku, and it is not to be trifled with. The deeper we get into the book the more we see how many hardships Oscars family has had to endore. We learn that Belicia’s parents and siblings (Oscars grandparents) were killed, both directly and indirectly, by the wrath of Trujillo. Belicia’s own story is one of many hardships, from living her first few years as foster child in the poor camps in the Dominican, to her failed adolescent romance with a gangster which almost ends in her losing her life, and finally her later years working two jobs while trying to raise her children as a single parent. Lola has a very dynamic character arch in the story, going from a rebellious young youth to a beautiful, caring, young woman and the catalyst that brings Yunior and Oscar together. Yunior has always had a thing for Lola, and in trying to get in her good graces decides to room with Oscar in college. Yunior is Oscars foil, in that he is a ladies man who has more trouble keeping a girl than meeting one.
So we have this cast of characters that we are all incredibly well written, each given his or her own distinctive voice and backstory. It’s through the backstory of characters like Belicia and her parents that we learn so much about what life in the Dominican Republic was like in the 50’s all the way up through the mid-90’s. We learn about how Dominicans lived in a state of constant terror of Rafael Trujillo during his 30 year reign. How the tyrannical dictator basically ran roughshod over his people: raping, pillaging and murdering until the day he he was killed. Even after Trujillo’s dies, his ghost still haunts Oscar and his family, and Oscar is of the opinion that they are all afflicted by some major fuku. After reading the book, I tend to agree with him.
What makes this book really extraordinary is how electric Diaz’s prose are are. He slips in and out of speaking spanish, slang and extremely high brow vernacular like one may get in and out of a pair of well worn shoes. For example - here is a description of Belicia as she is leaving the DR for America:
She is sixteen and her skin is the darkness before the black, the plum of the day’s light, her breasts like sunsets trapped beneath her skin, but for all her youth and beauty she has a sour distrusting expression that only dissolves under the weight of immense pleasure. Her dreams are spare, lack the propulsion of a mission, her ambition is without traction. Her fiercest hope? That she will find a man. What she doesn’t yet know: the cold, the backbreaking drudgery of the factorias, the loneliness of Diaspora, that she will never again live in Santo Domingo, her own heart. What else she doesn’t know: that the man next to her would end up being her husband and the father of her two children, that after two years together he would leave her, her third and final heartbreak, and she would never love again
There are also copious in-references to things like The Lord Of The Rings, Akira, Dungeons and Dragons, and video games. It's at times exhausting trying to keep up with how fast Diaz throws the references into the story. But more than any other skill in his deck, Diaz is perhaps the best author I have read when it comes to the subject of heartbreak. Make no mistake, this book is trying to break your heart. Diaz is trying to make you feel the same kind of heart break that Oscar is tormented by throughout the novel, and boy does he ever succeed on that front. By the end of the book my heart felt like it had been thrown into a pinball machine, and Diaz played with it until he got the high score.
I often talk about how the books have the power to take up residence inside of the reader's mind, body and soul in a way that other mediums can't. Of the many books I read last year I can still feel the weight of Infinite Jest and The Brothers Karamazov bearing down on my soul. I'm sure there are books that have had similar effects on you dear reader. Time will tell if The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao will join that elite company, but it certainly moved me in a way that few books have. It was a pleasure to read, and my heart is all the stronger for it.