BOOK REPORTS FOR ADULTS: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Renowned author Emilie Buchwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” In our series Book Reports for Adults, we hope to make up for all those parents who turned on Seinfeld instead.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that…
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Why You Should Read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: Because how many Pulitzer-Prize-winning novels will emotionally destroy you while also teaching you uses for the word fuck beyond your wildest dreams?
Book Size: Medium but slow going. The language in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is part vivid lyrical poetry, part swear-every-other-word street Spanglish, and part sci-fi and fantasy references so dense you’re going to need the footnotes to follow them, so piecing out what’s happening might take a while. Stick with it, though. It’s worth it.
The Book Report, and What I Learned:
The Plot, Nearly Spoiler-Free:
Oscar de Leon is cursed to live a life of unhappiness, and that’s not a figure of speech. Worse yet, the curse isn’t really even his. It’s his family’s, passed like a disease from generation to generation ever since Oscar’s grandfather crossed the dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic, a man known for evil powers in every sense of the word.
On an even broader scale, it’s the curse of the Caribbean – the one that has stalked its people ever since Columbus first set his boot on the soil of Hispaniola.
In every generation, the curse takes different forms: vendettas, persecution, slavery, injury, disaster, disease, and pain. But while Oscar’s family has known its share of violence and catastrophe, most of all, they are cursed to be unlucky in love: to be alone, or to follow their hearts headlong into ruin and doom.
As victims of fairytale curses go, Oscar himself isn’t all that impressive. An awkward, overweight, nerdy kid growing up in Patterson, New Jersey, his misery comes not from demons and monsters, but from the kids who kick his ass in school and his damaged, dysfunctional family. Friendless, unloved, ugly, and terrified of being the first Dominican in history to die a virgin, he decides he has only one choice…
Oscar has to break the curse once and for all.
In one of the nerdy books or movies Oscar loves, this would be easy: throw the Ring into Mount Doom, blow up the Death Star, put a stake through the vampire’s heart, and you bring the evil to an end. But how do you break a curse when you’re just some kid stuck in New Jersey and the curse is your life? There’s no artifact Oscar can smash or magic words he can say to put his family back together, much less make himself beautiful and loved. His family might believe in fairytales, but they live in the real world, and the real world doesn’t work like that.
Oscar doesn’t know what he’s looking for. All he know is that his life depends on finding it before it’s too late…
Oscar, the hero. A dreamy, overweight kid with terrible social skills, Oscar has an even worse time than most high school nerds do because he lives in a culture where good looks, strength, and sexual success are the most important measures of a man’s worth. He desperately desires to escape his spot on the bottom of the totem pole, but this desperation just makes his problems worse (he constantly throws himself at friends and love interests with no restraint, and, of course, only winds up chasing them away).
His greatest gifts are passion, stubbornness, and determination – even though these are also the traits that drive the people closest to him up a wall.
Yunior, the storyteller. Our narrator is Yunior, Oscar’s college roommate and his sister’s erstwhile boyfriend. Much cooler and more down to earth than Oscar, Yunior has never had trouble finding dates or fitting in, and spends most of his time rolling his eyes at Oscar’s inability to look after himself. Deep down, though, Yunior is both much more intelligent and much more compassionate than he lets on, which is one of the reasons he was drawn to Oscar in the first place.
In a culture where compassion can often look like weakness, talking about Oscar lets Yunior show a side of himself very few people get to see. At the same time, his cynical and snarky voice brings a lot of humor to what would otherwise be the most depressing book in the world.
The Themes and Ideas:
Fukú and Zafa. The species of curse that Oscar suffers from is known as fukú: a malicious presence passed down in the blood and soil from one generation to the next. In The Brief Wondrous Live of Oscar Wao, fukú is associated with colonial rule. Its evil power centers around the sugarcane fields, where generations of slaves were worked to death, and it is perpetuated in the person of Rafael Trujillo, the US-backed generalissimo who ruled the country for 30 years that were so brutal and violent many Dominicans refuse, Voldemort-style, to even speak his name.
Because all of these political catastrophes have personal effects, of course, fukú manifests itself in other people as well. From the gangsters who hijack the unlimited power of the Trujillato to destroy their enemies to the ordinary people warped by bloodshed who drive away their lovers and abuse their children, fukú lingers in the bones like radiation, sometimes dormant but never gone.
Traditionally, fukú is countered with zafa: a countercurse that breaks the spell or stops it from spreading. Those are for small curses, though; the kind you might get from walking under a ladder, not the kind you get from centuries of oppression. For a curse as big as the one Oscar is squaring up against, it’s hard to imagine how strong the corresponding zafa would have to be.
Nevertheless, finding this zafa becomes Oscar and Yunior’s shared quest. The one thing they agree on is that running from the curse won’t work; running from it only makes it stronger. If they can stare it down, understand it, and tell its story, though, then they might just stand a chance.
Fantasy and Life. The biggest debate between Oscar and Yunior throughout the book centers around the curse. Oscar, after a lifetime of painful experience, believes it’s real. Yunior, a pragmatist, believes the only accurate name for the curse is “life.” It’s a debate that the book leaves ambiguous all the way to the end.
On one hand, Oscar has the full force of culture on his side. After all, as Yunior sarcastically points out, what Latino family doesn’t think it’s cursed? Fukú is a fact of life for the older generation, to be spoken about in whispers and countered with symbols against the evil eye. Dominican history is full of Dark Lords of hideous power who can only be fought with trickery and prayer, and it’s hard to learn much about them without feeling a distinctly uncanny crawling in your skin. That’s one of the reasons why Oscar is so drawn to sci-fi and fantasy – give Sauron a Spanish name and J.R.R. Tolkein could have been writing about Oscar’s family history. Nevertheless, Oscar’s family does seem to be particularly unlucky, even in a community where bad luck is as common as colds.
On the other hand, as Yunior points out, of course a country ruled by a brutal dictator is going to be full of misery. People in power don’t need to be fueled by a supernatural force of evil to be greedy, violent, and cruel. And of course a family scarred by that dictator’s persecution is going to pass that unhappiness down from one brutalized generation to the next. That’s not supernatural—that’s people who were never loved being bad at loving, the most natural thing in the world.
The Brief Wondrous Live of Oscar Wao is often described as a work of magical realism in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Isabel Allende (but a lot heavier on the n-word). Like many of those works, one of the things it wants to talk about is this blur between what’s magical and what’s real; the way that history and fairy tales are often just two different ways of talking about the same thing.
Curses are real, and that’s a fact. However, if you’re brave and stubborn and stupid enough, you might find out counter-curses can be real, too.
Part to Quote So People Will Think You’ve Read It:
“They say it came from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fukú americanus, or more colloquially, fukú—generally a curse or doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World.”
Side Effects of Reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao May Include:
Spontaneous Spanglish, dreams of mongooses and men with no faces, and a terrified respect for all the secrets that still exist in the world. Also, a craving for Watchmen, Akira, and any other part of eighties nerd culture that you haven’t thought about in a while.
If you liked…
…the Latin American magical realism of it all, try Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. While the language in it is much more genteel than the language in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the books cover many of the same subjects – including the way families carry on both blessings and curses, and the way the worst parts of history never really go away.
…gory, mystical epics that make you feel really weird about being American, try Leslie Marmon Silko’s The Almanac of the Dead, which tells the story of a (fictional) native uprising across the Americas spurred on by supernatural powers. It’s a million-character doorstopper on par with Les Miserables, though, so don’t pick it up unless you mean it.
…books where the language is brand new and half the story, try Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. Told half in the vivid poetry of a Hassidic folktale and half in the broken English of the world’s most awkward Polish tour guide, it also shares with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao a talent for making the line between the real and the supernatural as blurry as it can be.
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