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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Waoby Junot Diaz
2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction
Synopses & Reviews
The most talked about — and praised — first novel of 2007, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd who, from the New Jersey home he shares with his old world mother and rebellious sister, dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, finding love. But Oscar may never get what he wants. Blame the fuk — a curse that has haunted Oscar's family for generations, following them on their epic journey from Santo Domingo to the USA.
Encapsulating Dominican-American history, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao opens our eyes to an astonishing vision of the contemporary American experience and explores the endless human capacity to persevere — and risk it all — in the name of love.
Signature Review by Matthew Sharpe "A reader might at first be surprised by how many chapters of a book entitled The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao are devoted not to its sci fi — and — fantasy-gobbling nerd-hero but to his sister, his mother and his grandfather. However, Junot Diaz's dark and exuberant first novel makes a compelling case for the multiperspectival view of a life, wherein an individual cannot be known or understood in isolation from the history of his family and his nation.Oscar being a first-generation Dominican-American, the nation in question is really two nations. And Dominicans in this novel being explicitly of mixed Tano, African and Spanish descent, the very ideas of nationhood and nationality are thoughtfully, subtly complicated. The various nationalities and generations are subtended by the recurring motif of fuk, 'the Curse and Doom of the New World,' whose 'midwife and... victim' was a historical personage Diaz will only call the Admiral, in deference to the belief that uttering his name brings bad luck (hint: he arrived in the New World in 1492 and his initials are CC). By the prologue's end, it's clear that this story of one poor guy's cursed life will also be the story of how 500 years of historical and familial bad luck shape the destiny of its fat, sad, smart, lovable and short-lived protagonist. The book's pervasive sense of doom is offset by a rich and playful prose that embodies its theme of multiple nations, cultures and languages, often shifting in a single sentence from English to Spanish, from Victorian formality to 'Negropolitan' vernacular, from Homeric epithet to dirty bilingual insult. Even the presumed reader shape-shifts in the estimation of its in-your-face narrator, who addresses us variously as 'folks,' 'you folks,' 'conspiracy-minded-fools,' 'Negro,' 'Nigger' and 'plataneros.' So while Diaz assumes in his reader the same considerable degree of multicultural erudition he himself possesses — offering no gloss on his many un-italicized Spanish words and expressions (thus beautifully dramatizing how linguistic borders, like national ones, are porous), or on his plethora of genre and canonical literary allusions — he does helpfully footnote aspects of Dominican history, especially those concerning the bloody 30-year reign of President Rafael Lenidas Trujillo. The later Oscar chapters lack the linguistic brio of the others, and there are exposition-clogged passages that read like summaries of a longer narrative, but mostly this fierce, funny, tragic book is just what a reader would have hoped for in a novel by Junot Diaz." Matthew Sharpe is the author of the novels Jamestown and The Sleeping Father. He teaches at Wesleyan University. Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Nowadays, there may be Hmong in Madison and Somalis in St. Paul, but some of us still have trouble keeping up with all the intense cultural mixing and melting going on amid our purple-mountained majesty. For example, mention the Dominicans among us to the average Tom, Dick or Andy Rooney, and he's liable to speak of a mythical Shortstop Island from which wing-footed infielders plot their takeover... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) of America's pastime. As for the Dominican Republic's history, imports, exports, that sort of thing? Well, its national baseball team is one of the best in the world, right? Or is that Venezuela? Junot Diaz has the cure for such woeful myopia. The Dominican Republic he portrays in 'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao' is a wild, beautiful, dangerous and contradictory place, both hopelessly impoverished and impossibly rich. Not so different, perhaps, from anyone else's ancestral homeland, but Diaz's weirdly wonderful novel illustrates the island's uniquely powerful hold on Dominicans wherever they may wander — a borderless anxiety zone that James Baldwin would describe as 'the anguished diaspora.' Thus, that nation's bloody history, often detailed in Diaz's irreverent footnotes, intrudes periodically in 'Oscar Wao,' as if to remind Dominicans that tragedy is never far from one's doorstep. Or maybe it emerges simply to instruct the rest of us, because Diaz's characters are already painfully certain that they are destined for misfortune. Or, more precisely, cursed. Fuku americanus, Diaz explains, is 'generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World.' It seems especially contagious and deadly in the Dominican Republic, where 'it is believed that the arrival of Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fuku on the world.' How exotic. How ominous-sounding. How very similar to the pet profanity of New Yorkers from Staten Island to the Bronx. But the tale begins in Santo Domingo, where 'a story is not a story unless it casts a supernatural shadow.' It revolves around several generations of one Dominican family, of which young Oscar de Leon, a depressed, overweight substitute teacher, is among the youngest descendants. The clan's patriarch, a brilliant doctor named Abelard Luis Cabral, came down with an ultimately fatal case of fuku back in 1946, having run afoul of the malady's high priest. That would be Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, the tyrannical sadist who bedeviled his fellow Dominicans for more than three blood-drenched decades. Naturally, his terror-mongering casts a large, threatening shadow over much of the novel's action. Abelard's fuku apparently becomes part of his family's DNA, traveling through time and blood cells to infect his grandson. ('Oscar Wao' is how one of the tormentors of his college years charmingly mutilated 'Oscar Wilde,' a derisive nickname young de Leon accepted without protest). In no rush to spill the details of his hero's short, star-crossed adventures, Diaz maneuvers his plot through various time shifts, settings and narrators. From Santo Domingo to Washington Heights, N.Y., to Paterson, N.J., various generations of de Leons wrestle with fate and lose. Along the way, Diaz liberally sprinkles his pages with allusions to authors, books and especially stories from the science-fiction and fantasy genres to which Oscar is devoted. So don't be surprised when a discussion of Caesar and Ovid morphs into the Fantastic Four versus Galactus, and Mario Vargas Llosa gets short shrift compared to Jack Kirby, the late, lamented genius of Marvel Comics' glory years. Adding to our reading pleasure, Diaz excels at making fun of despots. At the mercy of the author's machete-sharp wit, Trujillo becomes the Failed Cattle Thief, the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated, the man who was Mobutu before Mobutu was Mobutu. Of Joaquin Balaguer, Trujillo's successor, he writes, 'Like most homunculi he did not marry and left no heirs.' And it's hard to resist his clever nickname for Francois 'Papa Doc' Duvalier, the madman whose pillaging made a wreck of Haiti: P. Daddy. Clearly a believer that membership has its privileges, Diaz makes cracks about Dominicans that the average Andy Rooney could never get away with. Reflecting on the ebony skin that keeps bubbling up in the de Leon bloodline, Diaz writes, 'That's the kind of culture I belong to: people took their child's black complexion as an ill omen.' Another character observes, 'That's white people for you. They lose a cat and it's an all-points bulletin, but we Dominicans, we lose a daughter and we might not even cancel our appointment at the salon.' There's also the distressing but all-too-credible spectacle of so many dark-skinned Dominicans spitting the word 'nigger' more often than Timbaland at a freestyle battle or Harriett Beecher Stowe at her abolitionist best. 'No one, alas, more oppressive than the oppressed,' Diaz explains. But enough about that. As Yunior (one of Diaz's narrators and a welcome holdover from 'Drown,' his acclaimed story collection) reminds us, 'This is supposed to be a true account of the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.' Obese and socially awkward, Oscar is obsessed with food, girls, role-playing games, girls, anime, girls — you get the picture. Trouble is, female companions remain tantalizingly beyond his grasp, as do all other kinds of companions, who eventually abandon him to his habitual depression. Oscar couldn't find a pal on the Island of Lost Toys. 'You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto,' Diaz writes. 'Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.' Does Oscar ever overcome his ungainliness and find romance or a sense of belonging? The brevity of his tale prevents me from telling you much. Although I found the big guy totally sympathetic, he's often way too stubborn for his own good. In addition, it's not his fault that nearly every other character holds our interest just as easily — more of a reflection of Diaz's broad palette than Oscar's lack of dimension. But Oscar clearly is not intended to function as a hero in the classical sense. Is he meant primarily to symbolize the tangled significance of desire, exile and homecoming? Or is he a 307-lb. warning that only slim guys get the girls? Are we to wring from his ample flesh more of that anguished diaspora stuff? Could be, but I find sufficient meaning in the sheer joy of absorbing Diaz's sentences, each rolled out with all the nerdy, wordy flair of an audacious imagination and a vocabulary to match. It's easy to imagine Diaz smiling as he uncorked a description of a woman with 'breasts like sunsets trapped beneath her skin' or writing of Trujillo, 'Homeboy dominated Santo Domingo like it was his very own private Mordor.' Diaz pulls it off with the same kind of eggheaded urban eloquence found in the work of Paul Beatty ('The White Boy Shuffle'), Victor LaValle ('Slapboxing with Jesus'), Mat Johnson ('Drop') and his very own 'Drown.' Geek swagger, baby. Get used to it. Notwithstanding his neological dazzle, he's anything but longwinded. And he's patient — maddeningly so. Diaz made us wait 11 years for this first novel and boom! — it's over just like that. It's not a bad gambit, to always leave your audience wanting more. So brief and wondrous, this life of Oscar. Wow. Jabari Asim, former deputy editor of The Washington Post Book World, is editor-in-chief of the Crisis magazine." Reviewed by Jabari Asim, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"A rich, impassioned vision of the Dominican Republic and its diaspora, filtered through the destiny of a single family.... DÃaz's reverse family saga, crossed with withering political satire, makes for a compelling, sex-fueled, 21st-century tragi-comedy with a magical twist." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"It's been 11 years since Junot Diaz published his acclaimed story collection, Drown, and he has spent the time well, honing the sharp, slangy voice that propels his terrific first novel....A joy to read, and every bit as exhilerating to reread. (Grade: A-)" Entertainment Weekly
"Writing in a combustible mix of slang and lyricism, Diaz loops back and forth in time and place, generating sly and lascivious humor in counterpoint to tyranny and sorrow." Booklist
"Told in blinkingly kinetic prose, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz's dazzling debut novel, fulfills the promise of this writer's short story collection (Drown) and fully reveals a powerful presence in moden American fiction." Cathleen Medwick, O: The Oprah Magazine
"A book so astoundingly great that in a fall crowded with heavyweights — Richard Russo, Philip Roth, Nick Hornby, Tom Perotta — Diaz is a good bet to run away with the field." Lev Grossman, Critical Mass
"[A] wondrous, not-so-brief first novel that is so original it can only be described as Mario Vargas Llosa meets 'Star Trek' meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West. It is funny, street-smart and keenly observed.... [Diaz has] written a book that decisively establishes him as one of contemporary fiction's most distinctive and irresistible new voices." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"[A] hell of a book." Los Angeles Times
"[A] colorful and complex portrait of mad love, old-world superstition, and the continual strivings of a diaspora." Christian Science Monitor
Rendering with warmth the endless human capacity to persevere, this Pulitzer Prize-winning work is the long-awaited first novel from the unmistakable voice behind the short story collection Drown.
Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd who — from the New Jersey home he shares with his old world mother and rebellious sister — dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, finding love. But Oscar may never get what he wants. Blame the fukú — a curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, following them on their epic journey from Santo Domingo to the USA. Encapsulating Dominican-American history, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao opens our eyes to an astonishing vision of the contemporary American experience and explores the endless human capacity to persevere — and risk it all — in the name of love.
About the Author
Junot Diaz's fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Best American Short Stories. His debut story collection, Drown, was a publishing sensation of unprecedented acclaim, became a national bestseller, won numerous awards, and is now a landmark of contemporary literature. He was born and raised in the Dominican Republic, and now lives in New York City and Boston, where he teaches at MIT.
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