The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

September 6, 2007

The long-awaited first novel from Junot Díaz expands the short story about Oscar Wao—a lonely, overweight, Domincan sci-fi nerd in Paterson, New Jersey, who falls hopelessly in love with women who never reciprocate his feelings—originally publis...

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NovelDomestic Fiction

340 Pages
4.1

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The long-awaited first novel from Junot Díaz expands the short story about Oscar Wao—a lonely, overweight, Domincan sci-fi nerd in Paterson, New Jersey, who falls hopelessly in love with women who never reciprocate his feelings—originally published in the New Yorker seven years previously.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) is a novel written by Dominican American author Junot Díaz.

Junot Díaz (born December 31, 1968) is a Dominican-American writer, creative writing professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and fiction editor at Boston Review. He also serves on the board of advisers for Freedom University, a volunteer organization in Georgia that provides post-secondary instruction to undocumented immigrants. Central to Díaz's work is the immigrant experience, particularly the Latino immigrant experience.

 

Born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Díaz immigrated with his family to New Jersey when he was six years old. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Rutgers University, and shortly after graduating created the character "Yunior", who served as narrator of several of his later books. After obtaining his MFA from Cornell University, Díaz published his first book, the 1995 short story collection Drown.

 

Diaz received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and received a MacArthur Fellowship "Genius Grant" in 2012. Appointed chair of the Pulitzer Board in April 2018, he stepped down soon after amid controversy over allegations of sexual harassment were made by the author Zinzi Clemmons and several other female writers. The issue sparked controversy in feminist circles regarding the role of race or ethnicity in the public and media response to such allegations.

Awards and nominations

PEN/Malamud Award2002

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao2008

Salon Book Award for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao2007

National Book Critics Circle Award for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao2007

Center for Fiction First Novel Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao2007

Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Fiction) finalist for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao 2007

Fellow of the American Academy Rome Prize2008

Dayton Literary Peace Prize (Fiction) for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao2008

Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (Fiction) for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao2008

International Dublin Literary Award shortlist for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao2009

The Nicolas Guillen Philosophical Literature Prize, Caribbean Philosophical Association2011

MacArthur Fellowship2012

National Book Award, finalist, This is How You Lose Her  2012

Publishers Weekly Best Books, This is How You Lose Her2012

Kansas City Star Top 100 Books, This is How You Lose Her2012

New York Times 100 Notable Books, This is How You Lose Her2012

Goodreads Choice Awards, Best Fiction, finalist, This is How You Lose Her2012

Story Prize, finalist2012

Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award, winner, "Miss Lora" from This is How You Lose Her 2013

Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award longlist for This is How You Lose Her2013

Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction finalist (Fiction) for This is How You Lose Her2013

Honorary Doctorate (Doctor of Letters), Brown University2013

Norman Mailer Prize (Distinguished Writing) 2013

Inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters 2017

 

Narrated by multiple characters, the novel incorporates a significant amount of Spanglish and neologisms, as well as references to fantasy and science fiction films and books. Through its overarching theme of the fukú curse, it additionally contains elements of magic realism. It received highly positive reviews from critics, who praised Díaz's writing style and the multi-generational story. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao went on to win numerous awards in 2008, such as the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The book chronicles the life of Oscar de León, an overweight Dominican boy growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, who is obsessed with science fiction and fantasy novels and with falling in love, as well as with the curse that has plagued his family for generations.

 

The middle sections of the novel center on the lives of Oscar's runaway sister, Lola; his mother, Hypatia Belicia Cabral; and his grandfather, Abelard. Rife with footnotes, science fiction and fantasy references, comic book analogies, and various Spanish dialects, the novel is also a meditation on story-telling, the Dominican diaspora and identity, sexuality, and oppression.

 

Most of the story is told by an apparently omniscient narrator who is eventually revealed to be Yunior de Las Casas, a college roommate of Oscar's who dated Lola. Yunior also appears in many of Díaz's short stories and is often seen as an alter ego of the author.

 

Adaptations

 

A staged version of the novel, called Fukú Americanus, was adapted by Sean San Jose and co-directed by San Jose and Marc Bamuthi Joseph through San Jose's Campo Santo theatre company in

  1. The production received mixed reviews, with critic Robert Hurwitt stating that "Fukú" doesn't show us how that works or what the curse has to do with anything ... for that, you have to read the book."

Feature film

The novel's film rights were optioned by Miramax Films and producer Scott Rudin in 2007.Director Walter Salles and writer Jose Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries) were hired by Rudin to adapt the novel. According to Díaz, Miramax's rights on the book have since expired

Review:

theguardian.com

Christopher Tayler

 

Junot Díaz's first book, Drown (1996), detailed the lives of children in the Dominican Republic and, later, of young men and their difficult parents in New Jersey's immigrant ghettoes. When first published, it was widely seen as marking the arrival of a young writer to be reckoned with. But there was less agreement about what kind of writer Díaz was. Although it was laid out as a story collection, Drown wasn't billed as such by its publishers. Some reviewers saw it as being close to reportage, others as a fragmentary autobiographical novel. It could also be seen as belonging to the efflorescence of tough, post- "minimalist" American stories as produced by such figures as Thom Jones and Denis Johnson. Yet Díaz, who was born in Santo Domingo in 1968, and moved to the US aged six, evidently had more complicated feelings about what it might mean to be an American, writing as he did in the shadow of an old country that's part of the New World too.

 

Along with his use of Dominican slang in his punchy American-English sentences, all this made Drown a hard book to pigeonhole. And this was how its author wanted things to be. Díaz planned it, he now says, as "neither a novel nor a story collection, but something a little more hybrid, a little more creolised". To his way of thinking, there's no reason to draw an uncrossable line between fiction and memoir, down-at-heel realism and stylistic exuberance, the New Jersey experience and pan-American culture. Nor does he feel that an English-language writer from a Spanish-speaking background has to choose between "Macondo" (a shorthand for the García Márquez school of fiction) and "McOndo" (a term coined by Alberto Fuguet for the backlash against magical realism). "Me," he told an interviewer last year, "I'm thinking, like a Caribbean, why can't we have 'em both simultaneously?" His first novel, appearing more than a decade after Drown, tries to do just that.

 

Oscar, the character who holds the novel together, justly sees himself as a doubly marginalised figure. A Dominican-American growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, during the 80s, he's hampered by his counter-stereotypical nerdiness as well as problems of race and class. Bashful, precocious, overweight, Oscar is "a hardcore sci-fi and fantasy man", well versed in "Japanimation" and Marvel comics lore. His ambition: to write a space fantasy epic combining the characteristic themes of JRR Tolkien and EE "Doc" Smith. He admires "British nerd shows like Doctor Who and Blake's 7", and when he reaches college he makes the mistake of dressing up as Tom Baker at Halloween. It's pointed out that this makes him look like Oscar Wilde. A Dominican accent turns "Wilde" into "Wao". "And the tragedy? After a couple of weeks dude started answering to it."

 

A big question in Oscar's life, and the novel, is: will he ever get laid? "It would have been one thing if like some of the nerdboys I'd grown up with he hadn't cared about girls, but alas he was still the passionate enamorau who fell in love easily and deeply." Since the reader knows that Oscar - like Francis Macomber in the Hemingway story - is going to have a short life, his opportunities soon look worryingly limited. There's a question mark, too, over the narrator's identity, which isn't revealed until late in the book. And of course there's the question of how Oscar is going to die. It seems that his family is under a curse that's indigenous to the Antilles, a curse called "the fukú": "It is believed that the arrival of Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fukú on the world, and we've all been in the shit ever since."

 

Then, just as the reader is starting to wonder if Oscar's one-sided love life can fill a whole book, Díaz starts shifting the novel's time scheme around with considerable ingenuity. First, Oscar's sister Lola moves to centre stage. Previously a shadowy presence, she fills a diary with an account of her adolescent struggles with their vituperative mother, Beli. After catching up with Oscar during his time at university, as seen through the eyes of Yunior, a character from Drown, the narrative cuts back to Beli's formative years in the Dominican Republic under Rafael Trujillo, the kleptocrat and Rwanda-style génocidaire who ruled the country from 1930 to 1961. Finally, the narrative cuts back still further to Beli's parents' experience of the Trujillo regime. So by the time Oscar sets off on his fateful last trip to Santo Domingo, a florid family saga covering three generations has been erected behind his back.

 

Including as they do brutal political repression, efficacious prayers by a pious abuela, historical coincidences in a tropical setting and a mysterious "Golden Mongoose", these flashbacks sometimes lean heavily towards the Macondo side of things. But they're narrated in a voice that's exotic in a very different way. This voice, which mixes street talk and dollops of Spanish with heavyweight nerd-speak and literary references, could easily have been a joke that soon got old. Instead, it starts to seem totally natural for the narrator to refer to "Papa Doc" Duvalier as "P Daddy" or say of Trujillo ("T-zillo"): "Homeboy dominated Santo Domingo like it was his very own private Mordor". "Minas Tirith in la pequeña" is a fairly typical phrase, though Díaz's lively macaronic idiom is equally capable of more subtle effects.

 

There's also a more serious point to Oscar's reading. "You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary US ghetto." It's a point that's been made before - in Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude (2003), for example - but Díaz succeeds in coupling the book's interest in genre to the creolisation he values in Caribbean culture. At the same time, he's impressively unsparing about "white supremacy and people-of-color self-hate" and the continuing political failures of the Dominican Republic. "That's our parents' shit", one character says of the fukú, as though it can be consigned to the past. But like history or politics, to which it's clearly related, the curse can't safely be ignored: "No matter what you believe, fukú believes in you."

 

During the interval between Díaz's first book and this novel, it was easy to worry that he'd found himself stymied by the demands of a longer form. Happily, unlike some successful short-story writers, he seems comfortable with the impresario aspect of novel writing: making them laugh, making them cry, bringing on the dancing girls and so on. Funny, unapologetic and intensely readable, his novel has a fine sense of itself as a performance rather than something ominously lapidary. It's also good on the weight of history, particularly as it's brought to bear on the female characters. And the reader is left guessing about poor Oscar until the very end.

 

Book Awards


Pulitzer PrizeNational Book Critics Circle Award

Book Publishers

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