Vivid, witty and undeniably haunting, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao tells the story of a boy with no luck. Oscar de Leon, the book’s protagonist, is overweight, nerdy and, much to his dismay, seemingly incapable of finding himself a girl or even a true friend. The novel, written by Dominican-born author Junot Díaz, is this year’s pick for Williams Reads, a campus-wide reading event that seeks to spark discussions about diversity among both students and faculty.
The Brief Wondrous Life unfolds as a patchwork quilt of stories from the people who have composed Oscar’s life. The novel deals directly with Oscar’s experiences growing up in Paterson, N.J., and his eventual return to his roots in the Dominican Republic. It also encompasses the lives of Oscar’s concerned and strong-willed sister Lola, his courageous but overbearing mother and his well-off but ultimately doomed grandfather, among others.
The reader hears their stories told in the informal, streetwise voice of Yunior, who is Lola’s almost-boyfriend and Oscar’s eventual college roommate. The main connection between the varied and often chronologically rearranged stories lies in the superstition of the fukú, a supposed curse that plagues Oscar’s family and which Diaz traces through the lives of all the novel’s main figures.
Oscar de Leon is a character who is at once endearing and frustrating. The reader can’t help but feel sorry for Oscar, a kind-hearted aspiring writer who is bullied for most of his life. But at the same time, Oscar is so easy a target that the reader may be tempted to join in the bullying. His awkward advances and infatuation with every girl he meets can induce cringes, particularly when coupled with his tendency to talk like a walking dictionary and make constant references to sci-fi or role-playing scenarios. While telling his sister about a girl he met, he calls her “orchidaceous.” At one point, he tries to pick up a complete stranger with the line, “If you were in my game I would give you an eighteen Charisma!” on the bus. He is sometimes irrational, sometimes self-pitying and sometimes annoying, but ultimately quite sweet and well-meaning. Oscar thus draws our sympathy; moreover, because he is by no means perfect, he is well fleshed-out as a protagonist.
The jigsaw-puzzle style of the narrative, in which the life of each character functions as a single piece in the whole picture of Oscar’s experiences, is both a strength and a weakness of the novel. Dealing with several characters at once lends depth to Oscar’s life story and allows the reader to feel almost surrounded by the people who tell it. However, this style of storytelling tends to become disjointed and, at times, unclear. Yunior is both narrator and character in the story, but he does not appear as an active, named character until fairly far into the book. Until that point, he slides vaguely between the role of omniscient narrator and storyteller. Because Yunior speaks from personal experience and therefore is a biased narrator, his failure to immediately identify himself to the reader raises questions about how we are meant to interpret the story.
The narration is complicated, at times changing to another character’s perspective suddenly, such as when it shifts from Yunior’s voice to Lola’s and back again without explanation. Again, this technique serves to both paint a fuller picture and disjoint the pieces of the story further. Were it not for the constant mention of the fukú, the pieces of the novel might seem altogether disconnected. But Díaz does bring some measure of continuity to the whole piece by pointing out the common threads of conflict and oppression in the lives of each character.
Disjointed or not, The Brief Wondrous Life is well worth a look. Its informal style offers the reader a chance to interact seemingly without barriers in conversation with its characters. Moreover, its portrayal of racial and societal interactions, coupled with its use of controversial language and subject matter, are more than likely to inspire thought and debate about cultural norms.