Sunday, October 26, 2008

“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Díaz

Year of Publication: 2007
Genre: fiction, family saga
Setting and Time: New York, New Jersey and Dominican Republic, 1950s to present day
Themes: immigration, “nerdness”, America, Dominican Republic, Latinos, dictatorship, family curse, ghetto life

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize 2008

About the author: Junot Díaz was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in 1968. He immigrated to New Jersey in 1974 and graduated from Rutgers University. He received an MA from Cornell University and now teaches creative writing at MIT. His first collection of short stories, Drown (1996), focuses on the teenage narrator’s impoverished, fatherless youth in the Dominican Republic and his struggle adapting to his new life in New Jersey. The collection was very successful and his long-awaited first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) won him the Pulitzer Prize in 2008.

Plot: Things have never been easy for Oscar. A ghetto nerd living with his Dominican family in New Jersey, he’s sweet but disastrously overweight. He dreams of becoming the next J.RR. Tolkien and he keeps falling hopelessly in love. Poor Oscar may never get what he wants, thanks to the Fukú – the ancient curse that has haunted his family for generations – dooming the to prison, torture, violent accidents and, above all, ill-starred love.

Some thoughts: Michiko Kakutani, from The New York Times, writes: “So original it can only be described as Mario Vargas Llosa meets Star Trek meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West.”. I love Vargas Llosa, even though I could not finish La Fiesta del Chivo (The Feast of the Goat in English), and I think that some parts of this book are a better, lighter version of that book. The author describes Trujillo, the former dictator of the Dominican Republic, in the same way as Vargas Llosa did: with rage, hatred and humour. If you are familiar with Latin American literature than you will know that family sagas are its landmark (García Márquez and Isabel Allende brought them to fame). This is a family saga, or better, an immigrant-family saga (the British and American 21th century literary revelation), but there’s more into it. Magical realism is there of course (the fukú and all that), but ghetto-style language and Oscar’s obsession with sci-fi and fantasy novels spice up the book. There is a lot of Kanye West I would say, i.e. African American / Latino street-talk that I found quite funny, not being American. And well, it looks like I should read some David Foster Wallace (who died a few weeks ago, by the way)! Is he fond of footnotes like Junot Díaz? I found that annoying and hilarious at the same time, for example when at the beginning of the book the author feels obliged to explain who Trujillo was: “For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history: … “.
The only thing that spoiled my “Junot Diaz experience” was that I had already read one of his short stories, actually the one that inspired the book, so I already knew how it would end. Not that you cannot guess from the beginning: I think that choosing Junior, Oscar’s sister’s ex-boyfriend, as the narrator for the story was not the best thing to do.
Overall, this was a wonderful book: very funny at times, but sad and depressing at others. Oh, and a last observation: the author must have been a nerd himself in his teenage years, otherwise he wouldn’t have known so much about sci-fi books and “nerdness”! And gosh, if you've ever known a few Dominicans you will know that being Dominican and a nerd is like saying that the ice is on fire. The stereotype is: Dominicans men are all machos and they always know how to charm a lady (also because they get a lot of them). They're nothing like sweet Oscar and that's what I liked about the book: Oscar's so un-Dominican that you start to believe he is a real person and not just a character from a book. Well done, señor Díaz!


  1. beh, mi hai fatto venir voglia di leggerlo...

    un abbraccio

  2. l'amore per i libri è comune a molte persone.. belle anche le parole it(aliene).. ciaoooooooo

  3. My dad offered to send me this recently after he'd finished it, but I told him that I had too many other books to read at the moment. Your review is the latest to make me wonder whether I made the right decision.

  4. *So* glad you liked it... I've received mixed messages after my raving review.

    r-lo... is it too late to get it? I think it's worth having for a rainy day. It knocked me over, frankly.

  5. C'mon Junot Diaz! By the way, how do you pronounce that first name???