I’m really excited about the book I’m currently reading, my second Pulitzer winner of the year, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. My younger sister was reading it as part of her college course and recommended it, and I’m loving it so far. As I’m already so far behind with my reviews, though, she agreed to lend out her review of the book for all you lovely people, so here is my very first ever Guest Review! You can find her here, and encourage her to blog more!
Junot Diaz’s novel ‘The Brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao’ written in 2007 is famed for winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and many other awards afterwards. The novel tells the story of an entire family through four generations and explores the culture, customs and history of the Dominican Republic in great detail.
Diaz especially focuses on the idea of Fuku which Dominicans say is a curse that causes disaster and can be passed down through families causing complete destruction of many lives. It is unclear to us whether Fuku actually exists of whether Diaz created it in order to incorporate the postmodernist literary technique of paranoia in to his work, however it acts as a very effective antagonist throughout the story, even gaining its own imagery of a man who “had no face”. This is used to great effect to strike a sense of anxiety and even fear in to the reader, as firstly the idea of a man with no face is not only strange but creepy although at first he seems unimportant, as we learn the family history and things start to get messy we see the return of this faceless man in Socorro’s dreams and through the eyes of various characters as crisis occurs. What makes this image ultimately terrifying is the fact that without a face this man has no identity, you cannot see him coming and that highlights one of the greatest fears that humans have; fear of the unknown.
‘The Brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao’ is a very intense, gripping story that is written in a very unusual way. Diaz uses a lot of intertextuality and pastiche to create the feel of nerdiness but also gives a greater sense of depth to the story. The texts mentioned are always of great significance to the situation and are often used to foreshadow later events. A key example of this is in chapter Two, the narrative voice is now Lola; “you were reading Watership Down and the rabbits and their does were making their dash for the boat” this introduces the idea of escape which from this point onward becomes an important theme in the novel. Another brilliant example of Diaz’s skilful merging of texts is before the novel has begun. We are presented with two epigraphs; a poem by Derek Walcott and an ingenious quote from the fantastic four, “Of what importance are brief, nameless lives ...to Galactus??” this may well be one of the most important quotes in the whole book. Even though it is not part of the story it directly addresses the story. We as readers may ask what is so wondrous about the life of Oscar Wao, the answer to which is read the book and find out, but the point that is being made through this quote is that compared to the universe or to Galactus none of our lives no matter how wondrous they might seem are worth anything. Diaz constantly makes references to Tolkien and ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ which for those of us who have read them and understand the references provides us with some amazing imagery and comparisons for the events throughout the book. While reading ‘Oscar Wao’ I began to make my own comparisons to Tolkien and one quote really seems appropriate when talking about ‘Oscar Wao’; All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” This seems to me to be a perfect explanation for the dramas we see in this book. It may be Fuku as Diaz thinks but then again it could just be the consequences of each characters actions. To me Fuku seems like a very interesting idea and it provides the story with a very strong cultural grounding but it also seems like a very good way to get out of having to take responsibility.
The title gives the reader several insights as to what is hidden between the covers of this book. The first clue is in the word ‘Brief’ which tells us that Oscar dies, it also suggests that there will be drama surrounding his death because from reading the blurb we know that he is not anything particularly special, but for his life and death to be of enough note to become an award winning story there must be some element of drama or the unnatural that makes it worth writing about. This idea is supported by the word ‘Wondrous’ which again suggests that there is something extraordinary about the life of Oscar Wao. Through the title Diaz has already managed to capture his audience and evoke a sense of curiosity in them to discover what it is that is so wondrous about Oscar. This in itself shows the mark of a great writer, but he doesn’t stop there he continues to present us with ideas for us to question, new characters to provide depth to the story and increase our understanding of what is happening and he continually provides us with historical information to enhance our contextual understanding. Diaz manages to combine his brilliant work of fiction with a very in depth and opinionated history lesson on the on goings in the Dominican Republic during and after the Trujillato. This is mainly done through the use of extensive footnotes which often just Diaz are taking the narrative in a different direction to give a broader view of a situation but without wanting to lose the flow of the actual story he puts it in to a footnote. Some of the footnotes are abnormally long and throughout the book it is almost as if there is another story running parallel to the main narrative through the footnotes.
In a way ‘Oscar Wao’ could be seen as a continuation of ‘Drown’ a collection of short stories Diaz wrote before ‘Oscar Wao’. This is because the narrator, the character Yunior who we meet part way through the story is the protagonist of Drown. We can see that Diaz does not write a character for a specific part and then forget about them, he routinely brings in characters from earlier in the book towards the end and even as in this case from other books. This leads on the question ‘is Oscar Wao autobiographical or entirely fiction?’ From interviews with Diaz on this topic it can be established that ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ is at least partly autobiographical. Diaz talks about the way he grew up and suggests that Oscar is who he could’ve become if he hadn’t gone to live with his father, but as a result of that he became a character more like Yunior instead. I think that in terms of the characters in Oscar Wao Diaz is Yunior and is narrating the life he could of had, using characters loosely based on real people to explore the possibilities of his alternate life. We know that at least some of the characters are based on real people as we know that Beli’s “scar on her back as vast an inconsolable as the sea” mimics the scars on Diaz’s mothers back. The knowledge that the book is at least partly autobiographical gives it a greater power over the reader as all the horrific things that happen become reality rather than fiction. This also adds to the shock factor that Diaz works hard to achieve, on top of the crude and often taboo language, dark humour and violent imagery.
One of the most obvious downsides to ‘Oscar Wao’ is that it is written partly in Spanish which is left entirely unexplained. This makes the book slightly more difficult to read for those of us who don’t speak Spanish, but also gives a sense of sincerity, authenticity and culture to the book. It presents every reader with a challenge and a possibility to learn some Spanish whilst reading a gripping and emotive story of the gradual destruction of a family subject to the consequences of their history and culture.
Diaz creates unquestionably believable characters that grab our attention and hold on to it throughout the story. He uses women effectively to portray both the sensitive, naive young girl and also the strong unyielding characters that form the back bone of the story. This is especially evident in the characters of Oscar’s mother Belicia and his sister Lola. We see that Lola has gained her mother’s strength but less of her impulsiveness or obsession with love. Lola is a far more refined, rational character who comes across as more a mother to Oscar than his actual mother.
Overall ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ is a book unlike any other. It unashamedly borrows from many other books and comics showing the influences of the author and the characters. Diaz uses numerous literary techniques to enhance his writing, packing out his story with a combination of drama, humour and history making it interesting for many different kinds of people and making it impossible for it to conform to any existing genre. As Diaz himself said; “in the United States if you’re a writer of colour you’re considered a genre anyway.” And i think that Diaz uses that to his advantage creating a story that is a combination of so many genres and combines so many different interests that it is virtually impossible for it to be boring.