Even after thinking about the novel for some time, I can’t decide whether I liked The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. On the one hand, there’s the energy with which it is written and its inventiveness, wedging a portion of the narrative into footnotes that convey some of the most interesting information (a technique used also in The Sunken Cathedral and by such writers as David Foster Wallace). On the other hand, there’s the unrelenting sexism and objectification of women expressed by the principal narrator as well as by other characters. Okay, that’s an important part of the character’s personality rather than an attitude of the author, but I found it disturbing.
Oscar is a misfit. He is a fat, nerdy boy from the Dominican Republic, highly intelligent and well read but unable to interact normally with people, especially girls. He is interested in Star Trek and Tolkien, but even his other geeky friends eventually get girlfriends while he remains alone and still preoccupied with his obsessions. He dreams of being a science fiction writer.
In college at Rutgers he has one reluctant friend. Because Yunior (Díaz’s persona for much of his fiction) is in love with Oscar’s sister Lola, he agrees to be Oscar’s roommate. He tries to get Oscar to exercise and invites him out with friends. But his efforts aren’t sincere, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that his intentions are mixed, so he eventually gives up on trying to make Oscar more normal.
Of course, Yunior’s perceptions are all colored by his own preoccupation, sex. Although he loves Lola, they break up several times because of his unfaithfulness. Yunior sees Oscar as a young man wanting to get laid. Well, of course he does, but what he really wants is love.
Oscar has grown up with the romance of his sci-fi and fantasy epics. Yes, they are also full of action, but they are in a sense the continuation of the chivalric romances that obsessed another famous character, Don Quixote, and that’s the book this novel reminds me of. Of course, we know from the title that Oscar will die, and we can guess he will die for love. Also like Don Quixote, although the story is ultimately tragic, its tone is comic.
What I found most interesting in this novel was the story of Oscar’s family, for this is an inter-generational saga about the fortunes of his family in the Dominican Republic. In a combination of narrative and footnotes, the novel tells the recent history of the Dominican Republic and especially of the Trujillo regime, where Oscar’s family ran aground.
This time period was also the focus of another book I’ve reviewed, In the Time of Butterflies, which this novel references, along with a lot of other pop culture. I complained of that book that it assumed its readers already understood all about the Trujillo dictatorship. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao does a much better job of explaining Dominican history and exposing us to its culture.