It is not often that a book brings me to tears, but this book had me weeping into my pillow for much longer than is considered appropriate. This novel by Junot Diaz is just what the title suggests: the story of a man named Oscar Wao who has what is arguably a brief and wondrous life. However, the wonder does not come from the traditional source of fortune or adventure. Instead, it is the tale of a lapsed Dominican, a boy who does not follow any of the prescribed “rules” of Dominican manhood – Oscar is a fat, inarticulate nerd who repels women and finds his only solace in writing doomed science fiction novels.
At this point, you may be questioning both mine and Diaz’s definition of the word “wonder.” Let me explain.
The novel introduces you to Oscar as a child growing up in New Jersey and learning the “right” way to be Dominican. It takes you into the lives of multiple characters (including his sister Lola, his mother, and Lola’s college friend Yunior), all of whom appear on the fringes of their respective societies: Diaz constructs an ideal image to which none of his characters ever measure up. In that, they are uniquely human. As a reader, you begin to relate to them as people you may meet in everyday life.
In Junot Diaz’s world, no one is absolute good or absolute evil (except, perhaps, Trujillo); each character is fleshed out and woven into a historical tapestry. If you liked the cohesion of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, then Diaz is a swearing first-person version – although New Jersey is certainly no Macondo. Diaz writes his characters in such a personable way that even if you don’t like them, you understand them on a deep level; thus, when he writes about the tragedies of nerd-incarnate Oscar Wao, he makes you slip inside that character’s skin and feel the cringe-worthy moments and profound loneliness almost for yourself.
Diaz also uses a creative style that is not beholden to typical structures. He switches from first- to third-person, from character to character, and from literary text to footnote on a whim. While this style may appear choppy in other works, in this novel it adds a sense of playfulness to the text that many works of literary fiction abandon in favor of convention. I especially enjoyed reading from the perspective of Oscar’s sister Lola because she was developed not just as a foil to her brother and mother, but as a full person whose rebellious and driven life unfolded in parallel with the main storyline.
The Brief Life of Oscar Wao cannot be essentialized. While it contains elements of literary fiction, ethnic fiction, magical realism, and postmodernism, it cannot be placed under any of those categories in full. Its author both replicates the high literature references (à la Invisible Man) and tempers them with cursing and other lurid subject matter. He makes use of science fiction, mythology, and fuku (being cursed for Dominicans). And, most importantly, he breaks down the stereotypes surrounding fiction that features characters of color and makes them each unique.