The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the critically acclaimed debut novel by Junot Diaz. It describes the lives of a Dominican family cursed by dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina in the 1950’s in the disorganized, slang-and-reference packed style of a family friend turned narrator.
The title character is an overweight, unpopular, science fiction obsessed writer and hopeless romantic whose inability to live up to Dominican Male ideals is the first evidence of the demonic presence haunting the family since his grandparents were disappeared and their wealth and status destroyed for an alleged minor insult against the dictator whose presence looms over the entire text. Things, generally, fail to go well for Oscar. They go less-than well for his mother, and other of his relatives, and to some extent, for his sister. They don’t really go well for anybody in the book.
It’s that kind of story.
But it isn’t, really, a bummer. The character narrating takes the stance that the bad things that happen are too bad, but were essentially inevitable, and though he’s sorry they came to pass, he doesn’t waste a lot of time in mourning. His job is to record what happened, and if he passes judgement at all, it is against the monster Trujillo who held the Republic in his thrall for so many years.
It was a little difficult to get started with this book, both because I don’t speak Spanish (really, the problem is the slangy Spanish vocabulary, not the complexity of ideas expressed in the language), and because the character narrating and the title character are both Genre nerds several levels beyond me, and there so many references to comic books and old science fiction stories that understanding the allusions in detail is impossible and I ended up trying to read things from context.
So for me, it was a book where a lot of the specific descriptions of people and places floated over me, and I got a sense of mood, a hint of what I was supposed to feel about them, and not much more. A careful reader with the internet available all the time could do better than that, and maybe there’s more in the book, waiting to be unpacked, but I enjoyed what I got out of it and I’m happy to have given it a chance.
4 stars, I think.