rating: 5 of 5 stars
Oscar de León had style, class, and his pick of dates before he dumped one of his girlfriends and found the other with a mysterious escort. He was heartbroken, confused, and betrayed; he was seven years old. His weight ballooned and it was all downhill from there on out. Nevermind his brief popularity, Oscar soon fell into Fantasy and Science Fiction novels, Dungeons and Dragons, and comics--none of which went over smooth with the ladies. Instead of living la vida Dominicano, Oscar lives as an overweight outcast, dreaming of romantic scenarios with himself as the hero and the latest girl he sees as the helpless Princess in an imagined Fairy Tale. He isn’t too picky, having so much pent up (unused) admiration and devotion towards the opposite sex that his discerning organ of taste leaks on a regular basis.
His friends are a bit embarrassed of him, he disgusts the women he attempts to start conversations with, and as a general rule, speaks an odd combination of exacting syntax and lofty English that does nothing to ingratiate himself to a ridiculing public. As if he couldn’t make matters worse, he’s given the Dominican-derived nickname Oscar Wao after dressing up as Oscar Wilde for a Halloween party. Even his name loses all credibility.
Who does Oscar have to thank for the armfuls of derision and rejection he receives on a daily basis? Far from himself--the entire de León family has been cursed with the Dominican version of karmic payback: fukú. Yunior, Oscar’s college roommate, and Lola, his sister--the novels two primary narrators--take the reader through the pages of family history to trace the origins of this particularly nasty brand of fukú, one that has been following them since the time of Oscar’s maternal grandparents (evocative of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesx) who suffered under the rule of Rafael Trujillo, a ruthless and horny dictator. This explanation is woven through the narrative with as much fantasy as a comic book plot line, but within the realm of the novel is completely believable.
At the core of the novel are not the disastrous outcomes or ridiculous bad luck of Oscar and his family. Repeated attempts to thwart permanent negativity are met with the repercussions of generations earlier, but the attempts--hopeful, energetic, stubborn--are there. The de Leóns are nothing if not the latest in a long line of revolutionaries rebelling against their misfortune, but Oscar in particular is an anomaly. He inspires a small village of dedicated family and friends to counteract his hopelessness with the desire to survive in the face of hardship, to then transcend mere survival and begin living.
Junot Díaz fills the narrative with rich Dominican history (as footnotes) punctuated by sharp humor. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is heartwarming and disastrous, spellbinding and jarring, bust most of all: celebratory. The writing is amazing: accessible and masterful as Díaz spins his Spanish-meets-English dialogue and narrative, speaking to the reader in friendly, conspiratorial tones as if over coffee or lunch, flowing with the ease of an arm stretched languidly over the back of a couch.
I wouldn’t hesitate to call the narrative addicting. I had such a hard time finding a good spot to pause and get back to the normal of the every day. This novel was so good, so phenomenal, the only thought left in my head after finishing up was “wow.” I’m still stunned, two days after, and can only marvel at the scale of Díaz’ accomplishment. Halfway through I almost quit reading. It was hard to see the redemptive qualities of what was turning into a depressing, hopeless read, no matter how charming and well-written. Now, I can’t recommend it enough.
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