Books of the Summer # 2: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

While on vacation this summer I borrowed my brother’s copy of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a Pulitzer prize winning novel by Junot Diaz. My brother was reading the book because it was required for all entering students at his college. I was reading it because I had already finished the other books I brought on the trip.

I was skeptical when I started the book because I had heard interviews with Diaz on Fresh Air and other sources so I knew his Dominicano tunnel vision and leftist political views. It’s not that either of those things are bad, in theory, I just didn’t want to have deal with them as the omnipresent subtext of an entire novel which I was just reading for a little entertainment.The way Diaz presented his views in the novel felt pushy and abrasive to me.

Well, I’ll give Diaz credit for this: I became very engaged with the novel despite its agenda pushing and hyper focus on the boundaries and divisions of ethnicity. The book is, in some way, about the title character Oscar Wao but, really, the focus is on Oscar’s extended family and the way their family history was intertwined with the history of the Dominican Republic, especially during the Trujillo dictatorship. The story of Oscar’s cursed family is dramatic, suspenseful and emotionally affecting, without a doubt but Diaz uses this idea of the curse (on all Dominicanos in addition to Oscar’s family) to comment on the dismal political and economic experience of most of Latin America in the past five centuries in a way that I found heavy-handed,  fatalistic and unconvicing.

I finished this book quickly because I wanted to know what happened to the characters but I didn’t enjoy the book particularly while I was reading it. Additionally, I was surprised and bothered by the explicit sexual descriptions and frequent, gratuitous profanity in the book. Essentially, what I experienced of Diaz’s spirit and views as communicated through his novel was off-putting and unpleasant to me. I have no plans to read anything else by him in the near future (if ever.)

So, if you’re interested in a perspective on the dominicano immigrant experience, 20th century dominicano history and lots of swearing, I recommend to you The Brief Life of Oscar Wao. Otherwise, I think there are many other high quality novels about Latin America written by Latin American authors, in English and in Spanish, which would be a better use of the reader’s time.

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