The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Review

Uber-geek with a heavy dose of Dominican pride and cultural baggage. The bulk of the story centers around a planet of a human being, Oscar Wao, who us made out to be the only Dominican male to follow the Trekkie path to geeky, overweight loneliness.

the loneliness is important. Other than reading (and writing) copious amounts of scifi/fantasy, the only other thing that seems to occupy Wao’s time is his desperate wanting of female affection and his inability to attain it. As Yunior, a character who weaves in and out of the novel and has a section narrated from his point of view mentions, Oscar is the most woman crazy person he knows – which apparently is quite an impressive feat considering he’s dominican and all Yunior does is women.  Oscar has the fixation but just lacks the ability.

Which plays into Oscar’s downfall, believing he is in love, and doing something wholly irresponsible because of it. It’s an age old tale. Troy fell because of two guys loving one woman and each willing to be stupid for it. And to Junot Diaz’s credit, he spins it creatively and believably.

Still, I couldn’t help but be let down by the ending. The novel feels as if it is building towards something significant, but Oscar’s end is sort of what you expect to be, and the character who does go through a transformation is left somewhat hollow by our not knowing overly much about him, or feeling much sympathy about him.

Where the novel works best is where it effortlessly blends Oscar’s geeky obsessions with the curse that has supposedly plagued his family and Dominican Republic’s recent history of being controlled by vicious a vicious dictator who didn’t hesitate to rape, pillage and murder everyone around him. Junot Diaz shows a solid hand at being able to take control of the pacing of the story, to feed us a lot of information – whether by the actual text of the story or through the handful of footnotes he dots the bottom of some pages with – while allowing it to be enjoyable and to never be bogged down with fact.

What might be most impressive is Diaz’s ability to weave spanish throughout the text in a way that makes it seem not only natural but understandable. For background, I was a horrible Spanish student. I hadn’t taken a foreign language course since middle school and they are something that simply do not come easily to me now. While I enjoy them, they are miserable for me. I am destined to fail them. But I could pick up the meaning of what Diaz is saying in nearly every instance he drops some spanish into the text.

I don’t know if Diaz intended it but this is also a book about the destructive force of love. While the Fuku plaguing Oscar’s family for the past handful of generations is continually attributed to its run-in with Trujillo causing their fall from grace, the idea that the fuku is Love (with that capital L) is quite possible. Even before their run-in with Trujillo, Oscar’s grandmother was shunned by her family after having been wooed and won by Oscar’s wealthy grandfather, who also threatened to lose ties with his family and social circles because of who he loved and pursued. It was his grandfather’s love for his daughters (and fears that Trujillo would decide he wanted to rape one of them should he see them – something the book maintains was common of Trujillo’s rule of DR) that eventually leads to his grandfather’s imprisonment, his wife’s death, the death of 2/3 of his children and the third child being “adopted” by relatives of his wife and then being sold by them. It is love that leads to this surviving third child to suffer a horrible beating and to flee to the united states where she has her daughter, Lola, and Oscar. And it is love that kills Oscar.

Meanwhile, redemption is only found through responsibility. The sister of Oscar’s grandfather rescues the third child from the hell she was sold into out of feeling an obligation to her brother who always helped her. Yunior eventually finds his way in life in large part because of the responsibility he feels towards looking after Oscar. And Lola seems to be the least scarred of the family while feeling the most responsibility to look after and be involved in everything. And Oscar’s aunt is almost a saint in the book, as she takes the responsibility of raising Oscar’s mother and then looking after Oscar as best she could when he goes to the DR.

At the same time, it is Oscar’s inability to find love that damages him the most. His geekiness combined with his planetoid size make him a sexual pariah. And his inability to garner the affections of any woman seems to compound his troubles, making him more desperate for affection. The impression is that the book is praising the art of balance and restraint, but it doesn’t show the negative side of too much responsibility, of being too restrained. The argument could be broached that Oscar is the lesson in this but his restraint isn’t a choice but is something forced on him by massive consumption (as Diaz occasionally notes in Oscar’s “trying” not to eat for four and such comments, Oscar has a problem with defining portions) and the consumption itself is a horrible lack of restraint. And Oscar’s consumption of food is symbolic for his lack of consumption of love. WIthout one, he over-indulges in another. So his subsequent over indulgence when he does begin to garner some affection is a natural conclusion.

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