Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd whofrom the New Jersey home he shares with his old world mother and rebellious sisterdreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Read more...
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Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd whofrom the New Jersey home he shares with his old world mother and rebellious sisterdreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, finding love. But Oscar may never get what he wants. Blame the fukúa curse that has haunted Oscars family for generations, following them on their epic journey from Santo Domingo to the USA. Encapsulating Dominican-American history, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao opens our eyes to an astonishing vision of the contemporary American experience and explores the endless human capacity to persevereand risk it allin the name of love.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 31.
- Review Date: 2007-06-18
- Reviewer: Staff
SignatureReviewed by Matthew SharpeAreader might at first be surprised by how many chapters of a book entitled The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao are devoted not to its sci fiandfantasy-gobbling nerd-hero but to his sister, his mother and his grandfather. However, Junot Diazs dark and exuberant first novel makes a compelling case for the multiperspectival view of a life, wherein an individual cannot be known or understood in isolation from the history of his family and his nation.Oscar being a first-generation Dominican-American, the nation in question is really two nations. And Dominicans in this novel being explicitly of mixed Taíno, African and Spanish descent, the very ideas of nationhood and nationality are thoughtfully, subtly complicated. The various nationalities and generations are subtended by the recurring motif of fukú, the Curse and Doom of the New World, whose midwife and... victim was a historical personage Diaz will only call the Admiral, in deference to the belief that uttering his name brings bad luck (hint: he arrived in the New World in 1492 and his initials are CC). By the prologues end, its clear that this story of one poor guys cursed life will also be the story of how 500 years of historical and familial bad luck shape the destiny of its fat, sad, smart, lovable and short-lived protagonist.The books pervasive sense of doom is offset by a rich and playful prose that embodies its theme of multiple nations, cultures and languages, often shifting in a single sentence from English to Spanish, from Victorian formality to Negropolitan vernacular, from Homeric epithet to dirty bilingual insult. Even the presumed reader shape-shifts in the estimation of its in-your-face narrator, who addresses us variously as folks, you folks, conspiracy-minded-fools, Negro, Nigger and plataneros. So while Diaz assumes in his reader the same considerable degree of multicultural erudition he himself possessesoffering no gloss on his many un-italicized Spanish words and expressions (thus beautifully dramatizing how linguistic borders, like national ones, are porous), or on his plethora of genre and canonical literary allusionshe does helpfully footnote aspects of Dominican history, especially those concerning the bloody 30-year reign of President Rafael Leónidas Trujillo.The later Oscar chapters lack the linguistic brio of the others, and there are exposition-clogged passages that read like summaries of a longer narrative, but mostly this fierce, funny, tragic book is just what a reader would have hoped for in a novel by Junot Diaz.Matthew Sharpe is the author of the novels Jamestown and The Sleeping Father. He teaches at Wesleyan University.
Fighting the family curse
Life is not easy for Oscar Wao. He's a grossly overweight nerd with a sci-fi writing jones and the social skills of a three-toed sloth. If that's not enough of a burden for a young man with testosterone coursing through his system, Oscar also has the regrettable habit of falling headlong in love with a litany of women. Sometimes all it takes is a brief encounter on a bus and Oscar's heart runs aflutter.
We know Oscar is doomed from the book's title, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but what the reader might not be prepared for is the whopping scope of Junot Díaz's highly entertaining first novel. Oscar is the launching pad for a rollicking family saga that examines a myriad of places and issues, among them life in the Dominican Republic, New Jersey, Rutgers University, immigration, poverty, politics, a family curse and, yes, the curious layers of unrequited love.
Relegated to secondary status through generations of sexism, the real heroes of this novel are the women. Díaz intricately traces the tumult in the lives of Oscar's sister Lola and their dazzling mother Belicia. As we become familiar with their history, Oscar returns to the Dominican Republic, where he finds the love of his brief life, the prostitute living across the street. Somehow this talented author makes it all plausible.
Upon the release of his short-story collection, Drown, in 1996, Díaz's distinctive voice, which interspersed Spanish with American street lingo, made him a new literary star. His first novel, arriving a decade later, proves well worth waiting for. The real entertainment is the marvel of Díaz's voice, which is hip, high-energy, multilingual and often hysterically funny. Díaz turns in a bravura performance that will win him new fans and thrill those of us who celebrated his story collection. Now we can only hope it won't be another 10 years before his next book.
Michael Lee is the author of the essay collection In an Elevator with Brigitte Bardot.