Fantasies of a ghetto nerd

With hilarious banter, The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao challenges prejudices about purity of race, national identity and sexual definition


The Brief Wondrous Life
of Oscar Wao

Junot Díaz
2008, Faber and Faber
335 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

JUNOT DIAZ is definitely a strong, fresh and authentic talent, as Hanif Kureishi endorses at the back of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. And when you learn a little more about Díaz, you can understand why. For a start, which self-respecting author begins with a quote from the Fantastic Four (a Pulitzer Prize winner, huh)?

Okay, for those who now feel they want to complain, Díaz is an American writer – but he also happens to have been born in the Dominican Republic and, therefore, he is also Latin American. Oscar Wao was originally written in English, but has also been translated into Spanish and is a story about an immigrant, albeit not your typical one.

The first couple of chapters describe, hilariously, how the protagonist co-exists with his demented, goddess-looking, emotionally barren single mother whose greatest virtue is her ability to work like a slave for a miserable existence.

Oscar’s clever, sensitive and caring sister, Lola, lacks in the beauty department – like her brother – and, from a very young age, seems destined only to assume the maternal burden of responsibilities. Lola ends up defying her African-Latino destiny and becomes a punk.

The rest of the book constructs an interlocking fiction based on true events with a very personal interpretation from Yunior – a character present in Díaz’s imagination through Drown, his other novel – who ends up sharing a room with Oscar Wao while he is at university.

Yunior believes that Oscar’s life turned so sour because he seems to have been touched by the same curse that reached the one and only girlfriend he cruelly dumped aged seven. The curse was said to have been brought to the new world from Africa by the enslaved and became the deadly bane of the Taino natives uttered just as one world perished and another began. But no matter what its provenance, the curse was unleashed with the arrival of the Europeans on Hispaniola and, since then, everybody has been in deep voo-doo.

Sceptical Yunior reckons that even when young Dominicans reject the superstitions of their parents, history suggests that the proof of the curse was the dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo (depicted as Sauron, whose evil eye reached even those living well beyond the island). The Goat surely had a pact with the dark forces, believes Yunior: if you thought anything bad about him, a hurricane would sweep away your family, the shrimp you ate today would be the cramp that killed you tomorrow… When the reader reaches the end of the book, he or she will realise that everyone else’s nightmare is connected with the curse – and not even JF Kennedy was spared.

Part autobiography

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is part autobiography, part fiction, but Díaz creates a lovable, yet very complicated character, while at the same time managing to describe him in simple terms. Oscar Wao is a guy who appeared destined for great things, born and bred a Dominicano, celebrated as a kid for his masculine flirtation, but soon to discover that his lack of aggressive or martial instincts will make him lose any chance of getting lucky.

Oscar grows up in New Jersey in the 80s. He is so addicted to computer games and sci-fi that even his speech is affected. From the minute he becomes a teenager, his wondrous life is that of the outcast: he is a Latino but has the ways of a white American. He happens to be black but, for his peers, not black enough nor credibly Hispanic as he lacks the (stereotypical) ability to dance, the clichéd, slender-killer looks and the macho reproductive drive of the males of the diaspora Dominicana. Naïve, oversized Hobbitt-Wao’s take on life is set within the boundaries of the Akira storyboard or the realms of the comic book universe. And the cherry on the cake that he will find so hard to eat is that, when returning to the island of his birth, he is treated like a gringo simply because he lives in the States.

Oscar’s life is a series of travels in time, between childhood, teenage years, and the alternative universe of a Caribbean country. It may be a fluke, but the reader gets the impression that this novel was intended to be read aloud. Every character is crafted with the simplicity of homely banter and Díaz is capable of turning a very sad or crude tale into an entertaining and, at times, very humorous one. The street-talking narrative, the continuous insertions of quirky Spanish phrases and footnotes, the humour, the drama and the tempo achieved by the author is amazing.

Contextualising this novel, the reader can conclude that living in a world obsessed with typecasting, Oscar Wao – like Junot Díaz himself and a few million other members of the Latino community in the US – are all the things above, synthesised.

The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao is commendable as it highlights the impact of politics upon minority culture and consciousness and, in an effective way, also challenges the prejudices that abound in all communities regarding purity of race, national identity and sexual definition. Despite the world’s supernatural gloom, the moral here is that there is hope in friendship.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer

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See Junot Díaz reading an extract of this book