Reviewed by Sue Bond
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Díaz
2008. ISBN 978 0 571 17955 8. 339 pp. $AU32.95.
I came to this novel knowing it was highly praised, and highly anticipated after Drown, Junot Díaz’s collection of short stories from ten years previously. The blurbs on the cover reinforced this, making my teeth grind as blurbs often do. And then I learnt it had won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as the National Book Critic’s Award. The expectations were very high.
My problem is that this avalanche of expectation and hyperbole sets the novel up for disappointment in the reader. It is Díaz’s first novel, after all. How can he and it breathe amongst the torrents of adulation? Perspective, amongst other things, is in danger.
Sweeping all that aside, I do, however, recognise a lot of good things about this wild, funny novel with a serious edge set in the author’s birthplace, the Dominican Republic, and in New Jersey. Junot Díaz’s writing is spectacularly confident and witty, his storytelling scatalogical, alive, and full of allusions to popular culture and the classical literature alike. The more in tune with such allusions, the more the reader will enjoy the story. Díaz also uses a lot of Spanish phrases untranslated, not all of which the non-Spanish speaker can work out from the context.
He uses footnotes entertainingly to give the reader extra information. This is from one on page two, about Trujillo, the former dictator of the Dominican Republic: ‘A portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulato who bleached his skin, wore platform shoes, and had a fondness for Napoleon-era haberdashery’.
The plot of the novel involves Oscar, his sister Lola, his mother Belicia (with her ‘train-wrecking secondary sex characteristics’ and a fearsome personality), his mother’s father Abelard, and La Inca, his grandfather’s cousin who is Belicia’s saviour and guardian. They are all subject to the fukú americanus, the ‘Curse and the Doom of the New World’, brought over ‘in the screams of the enslaved’ from Africa: ‘the arrival of Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fukú on the world, and we’ve all been in the shit ever since.’
In practical terms this means they have run-ins with thugs of various status, such as Trujillo, or his sister, or minions of one sort or another. The hero Oscar is a nerd. He is fat, likes to read and to write creatively, is into science fiction and computer games, and falls in love all the time, without requite. A great part of the story is about his failure to get laid, and how abnormal and extraordinary this is for a Dominican man. Not that he doesn’t try. He’s not that abnormal. But he does use big words (‘I’m into the more speculative genres’, ‘I do not move so precipitously’).
It is Oscar’s love for Ybón, a prostitute with a mean boyfriend, that proves his undoing. I’m not spoiling the story because it is inherent in the title that our hero’s life is brief, and we’re reminded by the author of this at various points in the novel. It also provides the one truly transcedent moment in Díaz’s story, right on the last page. But although I recognise all the interesting and clever points about this new work of Junot Díaz’s, it is not a book that makes me want to sing. I have read it all before, in Márquez, in Rushdie, Allende, even Proulx with her vicious humour and unblinking stare, and de Bernières.
It is as if Díaz has crammed all of them, everything he has ever read, and everything he knows, into one novel. There are stereotypes where I wouldn’t have expected them (the strong, fierce, scarred mother Belicia, for example, whose interior life is scarcely present). It is action-packed and invigorating. For a first novel, it contains remarkable writing and invention, but there is plenty of room for development and maturation in his subsequent work.
Oscar should remain with me, but he doesn’t. He is an interesting character with some quirky features, who gets beaten up by his fate, but he does not make me cry out for him in response. There is a cold heart at the centre of this novel, relieved by only a couple of passages, which are not enough. I am amused, but not moved.
About the reviewer: Sue Bond is a writer and reviewer living in Brisbane with her partner and their large cat. She writes reviews for the Courier Mail, Metapsychology Online, Journal of Australian Studies Review of Books, dotlit, Asian Review of Books and Social Alternatives. Some of her short stories have been published in Hecate, Imago, Mangrove and SmokeLong Quarterly, and she has degrees in medicine, literature and creative writing. She is working on a memoir of her adoptive life, as well as short stories and essays. Her blog is at