Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoJunot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel looks back on the life of nerdy, overweight, Dominican Oscar de Leon. He failed spectacularly at sport, was socially inept, and obsessed with speculative fiction in all its forms (‘Could write in Elvish, could speak Chakobsa, could differentiate between a Slan, a Dorsai, and a Lensman in acute detail, knew more about the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee, and was a role-playing game fanatic.’). Despite these obvious setbacks Oscar had an all-consuming desire to find love. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is mainly about Oscar. It’s also about his mother, Belí, her parents and her past, it’s about Oscar’s sister, Lola, and it’s kind of about its narrator, swaggering embodiment of Dominican maleness Yunior. But above all Oscar Wao is about the Dominican Republic, its history, people and culture.

Spanish is littered throughout Oscar Wao. I wanted to stop constantly to check cultural references, translate Spanish, and look up historical and political references, but I never did. I was too invested in the story. I just wanted to find out what happened next. Once I thought I’d try to translate something: ‘ojas de mamón’ (as in ‘La Inca made her put ojas de mamón in her shoes so he wouldn’t ask too many questions’). But a simple translation couldn’t be had. It could be something like ‘leaves of castor’ or papaya leaves but that’s if it’s hojas instead of ojas, and even then the significance of putting ‘leaves of castor’ in your shoes was lost on me. Or mamón can be a rude word, like idiot or asshole. There’s layer upon layer of detail. You could spend forever lost in the Spanish, let alone the science fictional references.

Given Oscar’s love of all things science fiction it should come as no surprise that Oscar Wao is replete with nerdy references – anime, Watchmen, Tolkien, Dungeons & Dragons. Díaz’s use of SF references isn’t simply name dropping or list making. He’s really clever about it; the story of Oscar becomes enmeshed with the SF world. Díaz takes Lord of the Rings terminology and applies it to Latin American politics, equating fictional, legendarily evil figures with their real life counterparts, which I thought was very cool: ‘Johnny Abbes García was one of Trujillo’s beloved Morgul Lords’.

I also loved how Díaz combines sultry, vivid poetry with the immediacy of vibrant slang (in English and Spanish), his writing transforming from the stark beauty of ‘all those pale eyes gnawing at her duskiness like locusts’ to ‘danced like a goat with a rock stuck in its ass’ and back again.

Time goes back and forth, switching between Oscar’s life in New Jersey, Belí’s youth, Belí’s parents before she was born (in the 1940s, in the Dominican Republic Belí’s father, Abelard Cabral, was a famous doctor who got on the bad side of Dominican dictator Trujillo – something that wasn’t hard to do), and back again to the present day. The Cabral family history has ramifications that echo through time, right up to Oscar’s lifetime (the family fukú or curse). And it’s an unconventional and really exciting way to present Dominican history (there are even explanatory footnotes for those unfamiliar). Parts are told by different narrators, with different narrative points of view, and out of sequence, always knowing what the story is building up to – the end of Oscar’s life. Yunior (being a family friend) would know a lot of the details but it’s clear that he’s using some creative licence to weave his tale, to make it whole. You get the impression you’re reading about something true and yet mythological at the same time. Díaz’s writing style is experimental but it’s still lively and honest.

Oscar Wao reminded me of Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (exploration of the immigrant experience, the story of one member of the recent generation becoming the impetus for telling the story of past generations). Or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (Oscar Wao’s pervading sense of the mystic, their belief in superstitions and fukús reminded me of magical realism, then there’s the story of generations of one family telling the history of a place – Dominican history as told through Oscar’s family).

Junot Díaz has been criticised on occasion for his characters’ misogyny and sexism but underneath there’s tenderness and fragility. Díaz’s writing makes me love a character like Yunior, someone who admits to constant infidelity, who I wouldn’t be able to stand in reality. Yunior tries to help Oscar, even though they had absolutely nothing in common. He’s full of bravado, talking up how weird Oscar is, how much he doesn’t want to help him, but he does help him and there’s a connection between them. I’m not saying Yunior’s perfect, sometimes I was infuriated by him, and even by Oscar, for not trying hard enough to change, but I only got mad because I cared.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a gutsy, heady and exuberant portrayal of Dominican history, diaspora culture, and the strange life of one nerd. It’s sweeping, yet personal and intricate. I could almost have read it again straight away; it’s just brimming with greatness.

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