The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

I bought The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao at Boulder Bookstore after Junot Diaz gave a talk there. When I asked him to sign my copy for my nephew. Diaz wrote: To Nollie: May this find your heart ?.

That’s what this book will do: find your heart. Diaz is willing to do whatever it takes to reach the reader. He’ll quote Galactus, evoke Melkor, tell the painful history of his Caribbean country, and admit all the failings of people growing up poor in the United States.

This is the story of a Dominican family that moves New Jersey and the fukú that follows them here. A fukú is a curse, passed down not just from generation to generation but from nation to nation. Diaz explains (in one of the novel’s many footnotes) how a fukú is responsible for the US’s war in Vietnam. It is also the story of Yunior, that narrator, trying to love.

There’s so much too this novel. It works in many different ways. One aspect which I particularly enjoyed was Diaz’s use of language.

There’s plenty of colorful ? Spanish phrases peppered throughout. I don’t understand Spanish and so most of those I didn’t get, but I could guess at the meaning based on context. And that seems to be intentional on the author’s part. We live in a diverse world and no one can totally understand everything, all the time. The main characters in this novel must learn how to function in a world they don’t completely understand. And Diaz invites the reader into the same experience.

But what if you can understand Spanish and are familiar with Dominican culture? Don’t worry, Diaz also saturates the text in geek ? language so that even the literary Spanish speakers will be able to enjoy the reading experience. He starts with a quote from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The books hero, Oscar, wants to be the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien ?. Diaz himself is a comic book fan. He even name drops Gary Gygax!

It isn’t without a certain geek pride that I can say I got ? almost every single reference (which only adds to my appreciation of where I’m in ? and where I’m out ?).

This unique use of geek-ese ? should not overshadow Diaz’s skill use of language. He doesn’t just throw in some comic book references. These are integral to the story and the lives of his characters. As Diaz says in this interview at, he writes about aspects of the world that only the metaphors used in comic books can describe. The big bad ? of this novel is Trujillo, a dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic for 30 years. Trujillo is evil beyond comprehension. And he’s a real life historical person.

In an essay in Precarious Life, Judith Butler attempts to examine the why’s and how’s of they United States use of torture in Guatanamo, but evil like that and evil like Trujillo can’t be explained with political theory. Only something as ancient and evil as the fukú curse can explain the actions of dictators like Trujjillo. The fukú pervades this book and the lives of every character in this novel.

Reading this novel was a real pleasure. I was surprised at various parts of the story, not so much by the plot but by how Diaz chose to tell the story. It unfolds and turns into something delightful. But it’s also a very sad and terrifying story. In the end, we also discover something of how to live and how to love in this world.


Here are some links to podcasts and interviews with Junot Diaz:

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