For winter break this year, I determined that I needed to do more than catch up on How I Met Your Mother, sleep, and eat sugar cookies. I decided to read The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao initially because it won a Pulitzer, and I felt that a work of great literature would give some purpose to an otherwise lazy winter break. I found that the Junot Diaz’s book deserved its award; the story line features the “coming-of-age” motif without exhausting it and maintains a sarcastic yet sympathetic tone throughout. Despite the literary themes and devices that ran rampant throughout the book, I still felt engaged and connected to the characters. This made Oscar Wao work cross the divide from “literature” to “great literature”.
Even as Diaz maintains this balance, he also tells a hell of a story. A fuku, or curse, serves as the foundation used to explain Dominican history along with the tragedies of the de Lèon family— particularly Oscar, who ends up bearing most of the curse’s weight. With his creation of Oscar, Diaz has been praised for introducing a new voice in Latino literature referred to as the “ghetto nerd”: a combination of the urban stereotype mixed with your typical sci-fi, fantasy, and MRPG-playing fanatic.
After finishing the book, I hoped that someone as nerdy as Oscar truly existed. Oscar’s need for love and stability make him endearing from start to finish. While Oscar is gentle, loving, and sensitive, the narrator (who identifies himself as Yunior, Oscar’s roommate) remains ruthlessly honest from start to finish. I hated Yunior for most of the book, but at some points he tries to redeem himself by helping Oscar or by telling his story with slightly less bitter cynicism. I eventually warmed to his biting tone and prolific use of profanity, seeing it as his way of expressing the cruel realities of the curse.
A word of warning, though, the bluntness with which the narrator handles topics like rape, murder, and suicide can be too intense at some points. Also, if (like me) you cannot carry on a two-sentence conversation in Spanish, you may need to turn to Google Translate to keep up with the book. While Diaz never includes entire paragraphs or conversations in Spanish, you will miss some key jokes and asides if you do not look them up. However, I felt it was worth the effort, since I learned a few new phrases while discovering the world of Oscar Wao.
While the book made me cry, laugh, and punch things (often simultaneously), it was well worth it. Junot has the distinction of not only writing an enthralling novel, but forcing me to feel more emotions in two days than I did in the rest of break. Oscar de Léon jumps at warp speed into the reader’s heart and refuses to leave.
Time to Read: Two days (especially if your Spanish is as terrible as mine).
Worth It: Sí, definitivamente.