Oscar de León, nicknamed Oscar Wao, is a Dominican-American nerd and hopeless romantic. Oscar has never been kissed by a girl and being fat, nerdy, socially awkward, and the victim of fukú, a family curse, seems to ensure that he will remain a virgin forever. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the story not only of Oscar’s mission to get laid and find love against all odds, but also the story of his family and their cursed fates.
This is a book I have conflicted feelings about. First and foremost, I should not have listened to this on audiobook. It is not really a linear narrative, as it starts with Oscar’s childhood and adolescence, jumps to his sister’s story and then to his mother’s tale before meandering to Oscar’s grandfather’s fate and eventually returning back to finish up Oscar’s story. The story is also peppered with Spanish phrases and I am much better at reading Spanish than I am at aural comprehension, but that was sort of a minor point. The narrators did a good job with the story, so it is more my inability to handle non-linear stories on audio that hampered my enjoyment of the audiobook.
I came into this book knowing next to nothing about Dominican culture and history. I could probably tell you that the DR exports some great baseball players and that it shares an island with Haiti and well, that’s probably it. Díaz assumes this ignorance on the part of his reader and does a great job filling in the blanks of 20th century Dominican history, particularly the dictatorial rule of Trujillo. I definitely came away from this book knowing a little bit more about the DR than I did before and I appreciated that.
I also found Díaz’s exploration of why bad things happen to us interesting. He offers, on the one hand, fukú, a supernatural sort of curse, as one explanation and as an explanation which is rooted in the Afro-Indo-Hispanic culture of the DR. But on the other hand he tells his story in the form of a generational saga, which evokes more of a sins-of-the-father sort of explanation for why bad things happen to us, which is more of a Judeo-Christian narrative. You can read Beli’s rough childhood as a consequence of fukú or as a consequence of her father’s refusal to toe the party line, for example. It is interesting to see how the two explanations complement or are at tension with one another.
I also was interested in the concept of not fitting in in Oscar’s story. Oscar doesn’t fit in among the Dominican-American male community because he is not a womanizer. He doesn’t fit in with the white kids because he is Dominican. He doesn’t fit in back in Santo Domingo because he is too American. He doesn’t even seem to fit in with other nerds because he is just so awkward. This seems to speak to the immigrant experience of belonging to both the home country and the new country and yet not being enough of either to fit in perfectly in either place.
While there were a bunch of interesting themes in this story, I really didn’t like it. It felt too long and really started to drag by the midway point of the story. And Oscar is not all that likeable. He pines and pines after unattainable women and when he finally finds requited love he prioritizes over his own life, which is just ridiculous. He gets creepy and stalkery with women. He bemoans getting stuck in the “friend zone.” His blind devotion to love doesn’t seem romantic to me, or even tragic, but just stupid. I don’t have to have a likeable main character, but I think I was supposed to sympathize with Oscar and I just couldn’t.
Am I better for having read this book? Probably. Like I said, I learned a lot and it gave me a lot to think about. Would I read it again? No. I thought I might try some of Díaz’s short fiction, but I just don’t think I can handle his male characters. They tend to be dogs. Would I recommend this to people? If you are already interested in this book for whatever reason (it did win the 2008 Pulitzer), I’d say give it a try as there are some worthwhile points to it. But if this does not sound like something you would enjoy, I won’t try to change your mind.