Kindle technology allows you to build an impressive collection of stories without filling shelves upon shelves with books. This convenience makes it possible to experiment with your reading choices without making the commitment to order a book, wait for its arrival, and sticking it on your shelf. I’ve found that the Kindle has made me a much more adventurous reader.
With this new-found adventurous taste, I took a shot at reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. What I discovered was a masterfully written piece of historical fiction, complete with a multiple character narrative, nerd fandom, Dominican superstition, and brutal, dictatorial murder.
As the title suggests, the story detail the life of Oscar Wao, an obese Dominican American living in New Jersey. Oscar Wao, real name Oscar de León, is a science fiction and fantasy nerd who’s obsession with all things nerdy is only rivaled with his desire to find love. He comes from a Dominican family, who also serve as focus points in the story’s complex and shifting narrative. Diaz handles his complex narrative with the grace and style one would expect out of a Pulitzer Prize winning author.
Diaz tells his narrative in the first person, from the perspective of a character that isn’t revealed until late in the story. While I will not reveal the identity of the narrator, Diaz’s adoption of the character’s voice is a heady mixture of literary wisdom and street-smart slang. This choice creates a personal connection with the books characters, to the point that readers are left feeling like personal family friends.
The setting of the story is split between New Jersey and the Dominican Republic. The novel is in no way linear, with flashbacks occurring regularly, but Diaz describes each scene with such vivid believability that readers are never left feeling lost or confused. Scenes of the Dominican Republic under a dictator’s rule come alive just as clearly as scenes from a Rutgers’s dorm room. This results in a story that reads just as much as a first-hand history lesson as it does a literary journey.
Speaking of history, Diaz includes plenty of it in the form of hilariously written footnotes. Footnotes range from origins of Dominican superstitions to the rise and fall of the evil Trujillo regime. The regime’s leader, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina was a very real dictator (though I imagine Diaz took some liberties with the colorful nicknames he provides for Trujillo). While footnotes have a reputation of being long and monotonous, Diaz makes them an exciting feature of the novel.
Dominican superstitions are also a key element of the novel, along with other aspects of Dominican identity, such as hyper-masculinity. The plot is often driven by events blamed on “fukús,” a curse from Dominican lure. The narrator often speculates that a fukú is to blame for the many misfortunes experienced by Oscar and his family. For example, when Oscar’s mother, Beli, is beat to near death, the fukú is blamed. Subsequently, when Oscar attempts suicide after a failed attempt at love, the family screams “fukú.” While superstition is at the heart of many of the De León’s misfortunes, it is not the only aspect of Dominican identity that plagues the family.
Dominican masculinity plays a major role in Oscar’s struggle. Growing up in a Dominican family, Oscar is constantly reminded of the perceived nature of Dominican men: hyper-masculine, lady’s men. With Oscar being anything but a lady’s man, he feels a constant sense of inferiority that tortures him throughout his life. Diaz’s understanding of this Dominican hyper-masculinity gives Oscar, and all the male characters, a sense of authenticity that allows readers to relate to an experience few of them likely have had.
As mentioned earlier, Diaz utilizes flashbacks throughout the novel. Unlike in other stories, the flashbacks never feel forced or inauthentic. For example, when Diaz flashback to the upbringing of Oscar’s mother, it never feels like a plot device; instead, it reads as a high point in the novel. Bali’s upbringing is an interesting mixture of tragic poverty and extreme privilege.
After being born into a wealthy Dominican family, Bali spends years in poverty after her parents were assassinated by the Trujillo regime. The juxtaposition Diaz achieves with Bali’s upbringing is an enlightening exploration into class divides. By the time readers return to the main narrative, a deep connection to and sympathy for the De León family is felt.
The climax of the narrative is somehow equally heartbreaking and cathartic. Such an experience is rare in literature, and I wouldn’t dare spoil it for potential readers. However, I will say the character of Oscar shifts from pathetic nerd to courageous hero. Diaz makes this transition without ever veering cliché or disbelief.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a masterful story that has enough historical accuracy, mainstream references, fantastical plot elements, and insights into human nature to appeal to all types of readers. No matter if you are beginning to build your Kindle library, or looking to add to you impressive collection, Diaz’s magnum opus is a must. The story will leave you wondering if those Dominican superstitions were on to something after all.
Get Junot Diaz – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao for Kindle.