The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

On Tuesday I thought I’d pack the house for Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Possibly due to the torrential rains and winds of the night before and the damp afternoon, it turned out to be a small group of six.

I anticipated some conflict–Oscar Wao is not a book for everyone. For one, it’s filled with Spanish words and slang but provides no glossary. Diaz also throws out multiple references to science fiction and fantasy novels and comic books that may be lost on some. But everyone who showed up were open to sharing their issues with the book and their enjoyment.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao centers on one Dominican-American family: Beli, the stern matriarch, Lola, her rebellious daughter, and her son Oscar, a chubby nerdboy who loses himself in writing and reading science fiction and comics in order to avoid his lack of luck with the ladies. But it also flashes back into the family’s past in ways that illuminate the present.

Diaz’s book is also very much about the history of the Dominican Republic. Through footnotes employed by the narrator, (who readers learn to be Yunior, a boy who was in a relationship with and still loves Lola and befriended geeky Oscar), the Dominican Republic’s sordid history of bloodshed, fear and harsh dictatorships as well as the United States’ involvement is laid out.

One point that the group discussed was the stereotype of the macho, Dominican male. Yunior, the narrator, puts this stereotype on full display, which is something that we spent some time on. But as Diaz stated in a Slate interview, he couldn’t write about masculininty, dictatorship and power without writing about Trujillo and his brutal regime.

In this same interview, Diaz makes a provocative statement: “the real dictatorship is in the book itself, in its telling.” He qualifies this by saying that he wanted to point out that we are attached to the idea of dictatorship, of someone explaining things to us. This is as true in the real world as in literature. So it seems that one of the best ways to examine this notion is through book discussion–through questioning the purpose of the author or narrator, their reliability, and our willingness to believe. In Oscar Wao, Diaz uses the history of the Dominican Republic and the curse of Trujillo on that country and its people, and in the lives of the novel’s main family, to open the readers’ eyes to the corruptive power of one voice controlling and speaking for all.

Our group also talked about how The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is about love. Love as a force to combat the evil in the world. Love wasted. Love as worth risking it all and even dying for. Love and intimacy versus mere sex. Love or the expression of love as the battle between a mother and a daughter. Love as our future.

We ended the discussion by questioning the title. Was Oscar’s brief life really wondrous? What is the meaning in choosing that word? Whatever your conclusion, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is rich for discussion.

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About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library. Follow her on Twitter at @ahsimlibrarian.

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