The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

I really enjoyed this one; it’s lively, full of energy. Funny. It’s written in a colloquial style, sprinkled with slang, bits of Spanish and SF references.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a novel about a Dominican family in New Jersey. Oscar himself, obese and nerdy, was born in New York, but the book interleaves his story with the family history; his mother’s life in the Dominican Republic, then further back again to tell the story of her parents. It is, among other things, about the immigrant experience, about being a Dominican in New Jersey but always slightly an outsider in the DR. And what it means to be Dominican anyway if you can’t live up to the stereotype, if you are in fact a fat nerd. And the sections about his family before they left the DR, there are other things: life under dictatorship and so on. 

Glancing over the Goodreads reviews, they seem to mainly trend towards OMG this is teh best novel EVAR with a sprinkling of people who are irritated by one or other of the books quirks: the heavy use of Spanglish, the footnotes, the multiple narrators, the fact that the book is only partly about what the title says it’s about. One of the people in my mother’s book group  apparently disliked it because he likes books to start at the beginning and then go in a straight line to the end.

You probably have a pretty good idea before you start what your tolerance is like for that kind of thing; personally the non-linear narrative and the various narrative voices don’t bother me at all, and while I’m not a big fan of footnotes in novels they weren’t especially irritating in this book. The Spanglish/Spanish was more of a problem for me personally because I don’t know any Spanish, and while a combination of context and the remnants of the French and Latin I learned in school were enough to deduce what some words meant, whole sentences were generally beyond me. I’m certainly not suggesting that he shouldn’t have used the Spanish, and it added to my enjoyment more than it spoiled it, but I was probably missing out on a lot of what was going on. Caveat emptor.

I wouldn’t go quite as far as best book EVAR either; I don’t think it’s even the best novel I’ve read this year, and I’ve only read two. But I did thoroughly enjoy it. Here’s an extract:

It seemed to Oscar that from the moment Maritza dumped him—Shazam!—his life started going down the tubes. Over the next couple of years he grew fatter and fatter. Early adolescence hit him especially hard, scrambling his face into nothing you could call cute, splotching his face with zits, making him self-conscious, and his interest—in Genres!—which nobody had said boo about before, suddenly became synonymous with being a loser with a capital L. Couldn’t make friends for the life of him, too dorky, too shy, and (if the kids from his neighbourhood are to be believed) too weird (had a habit of using big words he had memorised only the day before). He no longer went anywhere near the girls because at best they ignored him, at worst they shrieked and called him gordo asqueroso! He forgot the perrito, forgot the pride he felt when women in the family had called him hombre. Did not kiss another girl for a long long time. As though almost everything he had in the girl department had burned up in that one fucking week.

Not that his “girlfriends” fared much better. It seemed that whatever bad no-love karma hit Oscar hit them too. By seventh grade Olga had grown huge and scary, a troll gene in her somewhere, started drinking 151 straight out the bottle and was finally taken out of school because she had a habit of screaming NATAS! in the middle of the homeroom. Even her breasts, when they finally emerged, were floppy and terrifying. Once on the bus Olga had called Oscar a cake eater, and he’d almost said, Look who’s talking, puerca, but he was afraid that she would rear back and trample him; his cool-index, already low, couldn’t have survived that kind of paliza, would have put him on par with the handicapped kids and with Joe Locorotundo, who was famous for masturbating in public.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz is my book from the Dominican Republic for the Read The World challenge, and is my second book for the Caribbean Reading Challenge.

» The photographs, Thanksgiving In Paterson, NJ and Desfile y Festival Dominicano de New Jersey, are both © and used under a Creative Commons by-nc licence.

5 replies on “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz”

Good for you, Harry. I’m just finishing two books for the challenge, neither of them a novel — Kei Miller’s There is an Anger That Moves and Roseanne Adderley’s “New Negroes from Africa”: Slave Trade Abolition and Free African Settlement in the Nineteenth-Century Caribbean.

Diaz’s book is on my list.


I thought it might be useful to make a place for my list, even though I haven’t decided what is going to be on it, so I put it here.

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