I decided to cover this Pulitzer Prize winning book from Junot Diaz because on September 11th, his collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her, hit bookshelves, and I hope to cover it next week. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is Diaz's previous book, and for me, it is one of those books that only comes around once in awhile, and one I will never forget.
The Situation: The book begins with the story's hero, Oscar de Leon, living with his mother, Beli, and sister, Lola, in New Jersey. To put it simply, Oscar is your standard nerd (some of you familiar with the British comedy The IT Crowd probably read that in Denholm's voice...that is certainly how I heard it as I typed it). He is obsessed with anything science fiction, and spends countless hours pouring over comic books and graphic novels. He aspires to become the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien, and also, like many nerds, to eventually fall in love and live happily ever after. Granted, his nerdy leanings are a significant barrier to that last part, but ultimately he is a sweet guy who may just spend a little too much time invested in worlds that aren't this one.
The Problem: Oscar and his family are cursed. The "fuku" curse follows Oscar everywhere he goes, and this curse is seriously lethal. He already has a hard enough time navigating his life without this thing, and yet, it continues to haunt him and his family. Not only is Oscar's social life severely hampered, but his mother is downright caustic, and his sister, who is probably the most stable of the three, is rebellious almost to a fault because of their mother's tyranny. The fuku follows Oscar through his childhood, into college, and then right through his short adult life. He finds most of his solace in his extensive knowledge of science fiction and fantasy, and also through his college roommate and Lola's one-time boyfriend, Yunior, who also serves as the book's omniscient narrator for the majority of the novel. Oscar's life is hard...I don't think there is any formulation of words out there that I could use to describe just how hard without just quoting the entire book. It's that bad.
Genre, Themes, History: It is tempting for me to want to describe this book as science fiction, because it is FULL of references to popular, and not so popular, science fiction books and characters and TV shows and comic books and graphic novels and movies, etc. But in the end, it is fiction of the New Immigration. Diaz is from the Dominican Republic and would be considered to be part of the New Immigration (immigrants who came to the US after 1965). Since Oscar's family is also from the Dominican Republic, immigration is a major theme, but Diaz also goes into great detail of some of the history of his home country, particularly its time under the harsh dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. Diaz actually talks a great deal about Oscar's ancestors as they struggled to stay alive under Trujillo's regime, giving the reader a greater understanding as how Oscar and his family got to where they are.
And while this book if very often extremely vulgar, and derogatory towards pretty much everyone, and incredibly offensive, it is also absolutely one of the funniest books I have ever read in my life. And one unlikely tool Diaz uses as comic relief is the use of extensive foot notes. Yep, foot notes. He uses them so much that the reader realizes that they just have to be part of a joke. And of course, to skip them would be to miss out on a lot of useful information. And while it would have made the most sense for Diaz to use the footnotes to explain some of the science fiction references, many of those go unexplained, leaving only the very curious to Google them for ourselves.
My Verdict: Because this book is so filthy and so vulgar, I could never in good conscious recommend this book to anyone ever. With that being said, it is one of my favorite books of all time. It is laugh-out-loud funny, often during the most inappropriate times, and it is one of those stories that is so full of obscure references and Spanish phrases that I don't know, that I am sure I only really get about 60% of what Diaz is trying to say...but I kind of like that. I like that fact that there is so much in there that I could probably spend the next few lifetimes trying to figure it all out. Diaz once did an appearance at Trinity University here in San Antonio, Texas, and I was fortunate to be able to attend and hear him explain some things about the book that I never would have even thought of. For instance: the main four characters can be seen to represent The Fantastic Four with Oscar as The Thing; Lola as The Invisible Girl; Beli as The Human Torch; and Oscar's grandfather as Dr. Fantastic. Fascinating!
Favorite Moment: There were quite a few moments where the book made me laugh out loud, but there is one moment while Oscar is in college when Yunior is telling yet another story of some awful nickname that other students have given to Oscar because of how nerdy he is. And then Yunior goes on to say that Oscar actually starts to respond to it! For some reason, I completely lost it at that point. Maybe it is the honest frankness that Yunior uses to tell these stories, but as bad as I felt for Oscar most of the time, Yunior makes it very clear that he was in fact pretty ridiculous.
Favorite Character: One character that I found myself wishing Diaz had spent more time on is Lola. She does get her own chapters where she is the primary narrative voice, but she is such a strong and determined person that I wanted to hear more from her, or get her perspective on certain things. I suppose this is where her similarities with The Invisible Girl come in: while she may be invisible a lot of the time, she can still manipulate force fields all around her. And coupled with the way her mother often treated her, I couldn't help but want to hear more of her story.
Recommended Reading: I suppose a good way to find out whether or not someone could make it through Oscar Wao is to recommended Diaz's semi-autobiographical novel Drown, and see how that sits with them. It isn't quite as vulgar, but it is still honest. And I think that is what I like most about Diaz - the man goes for broke, and it has paid off extremely well.