Too rarely do we find a story that so unabashedly loves the speculative genres as The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. As a jaded English Major about to enter the real world where one’s in-depth, twenty-page thesis on James Joyce’s Ulysses is only slightly less valuable than toilet paper, this book revives a tiny fragment of my cold, dead optimism. Why such high praise? Junot Diaz’s masterfully crafted novel about the trials and tribulations of an awkward, overweight GhettoNerd trying desperately to find love is so much more than a story about isolation. It spans lifetimes filled with tragedy and entire universes through its invocation of the great works of fiction: Lord of the Rings, Akira, Watchmen… I could go on. This is a story that could only be pulled off by the nerdliest of nerds.
So what, you ask, is the story about? Oscar Wao, née Oscar de Leon, is fat, black, and despised by everyone around him for his use of words like “orchidaceous” and “[wearing] his nerdliness like a jedi [wears] his lightsaber”. As a Dominican immigrant living on the worst streets of New Jersey in the seventies, he was hated by the white kids for his blackness and the Dominicans for being unable to get a girl if his life depended on it. By the time he was seven, he had exhausted all the game he was ever going to have, and his love life faded so completely into non-existence it was almost a superpower. Despite all odds, and the fukú americanus (the curse that has haunted his family for generations), Oscar is determined to become the Dominican Tolkien, and find the one woman who will make everything worthwhile.
The true genius of this novel lies in the blending of multiple narratives, perspectives, and timelines. See, this is not just Oscar’s story. His sister Lola, his mother Beli, and his best (read: only) friend Yunior are just some of the voices and stories that are heard. Diaz’s manic way of jumping from one voice or timeline to another allows the reader to view these lives from multiple perspectives, allowing for a deep sympathy with each incredible character. The narrative wit is razor sharp, and Diaz’s unique humor shines through each and every facet of the novel, from the footnotes to the jumps in perspective and narrative voice. For no additional charge, we also get the sassiest history lesson ever printed about the rise and fall of the Dominican dictator Trujillo, punctuated with references galore to comics, sci-fi and fantasy.
It’s a profoundly personal story, yet it also feels universal; as we follow Oscar stumbling through his awkward existence we get flashes of other lifetimes: his mother as a fierce adolescent finding love in the most disastrous of places; his sister’s punk-rock feminist rebellion; the fall of their ancestral house to the tyrannical Trujillos.
The blending of fiction and history is what is truly remarkable about this novel. Oscar’s devotion to the heroes in speculative fiction ultimately allows him to discover his own resolve and fight for love in the face of great injustice. This is also a book about the importance of reading and writing fiction, and how stories can carry the weight of a lifetime and a legacy. Oscar’s journey to find meaning in his lame, lonely existence is deeply beautiful. This novel shows us the power of love and let’s us recognize our own history in this incredibly resonant story as we witness the outbreak of nerd culture in our modern times.
For those of you who have not yet read this incredible novel, GO NOW. It’s a story that will restore your belief in the power of stories.
-contributed by Amy Wang