Junot Díaz: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Junot Díaz received such a rapturous reception for his debut collection of stories, Drown, in 1997 that it must have scared the living daylights out of him. How to follow that? In preference to knocking something out in a year or two, he has ruminated, cogitated and gestated for a decade over his first novel. Would the book have been any different if he hadn’t taken such pains? Posterity will not care, of course, or even remember the slow birth, but for a reader now it’s hard not to have it in mind. Any consideration of the extra-literary aspects of this book can’t ignore the cover (when do I ever?): the US edition is clean and apt, while the UK design, in an unusual break with tradition, is so bad with its primary coloured faux naivety that its awfulness can only be the result of concerted effort. Nobody’s going to be buying this because it looks nice on their shelves. The pressure’s on.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (US) The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (UK)

The title of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is presumably a riff on Hemingway’s story ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,’ about a man whose rebirth from cowardice to courage is his downfall, and one could tangentially link this to Díaz’s novel. Despite the title, Oscar de León (the Wao is an accented version of Wilde, which his peers use to mock him) appears only fitfully in the book, in maybe a third of its pages, though it does begin and end with him.

The bulk of the book delves instead into the lives of his sister, his mother and grandparents, all by way of depicting life in the Dominican Republic (DR) and among its diaspora in the US. The shadow behind all their lives is the “portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulatto” Trujillo, the dictator who ruled the DR from 1930 to 1961. Linked to this is the central idea of a curse, or fukú, being upon the world: “it is believed that the arrival of Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fukú on the world, and we’ve all been in the shit ever since.”

It was believed, even in educated circles, that anyone who plotted against Trujillo would incur a fukú most powerful, down to the seventh generation and beyond. If you even thought a bad thing about Trujillo, fuá, a hurricane would sweep your family out to sea, fuá, a boulder would fall out of a clear sky and squash you, fuá, the shrimp you ate today was the cramp that killed you tomorrow.

You can see from this that Díaz is a writer with a love of lists, and his style has the expansive fluency that is familiar in a certain type of American literature. What gives him a novel flavour is his kitchen-sink approach to the language, chucking in everything from foreign languages (and context wasn’t always enough here) to the tropes of sci-fi and comic books. Oscar, you see, is not just an immigrant, but a geek:

Could write in Elvish, could speak Chakobsa, could differentiate between a Slan, a Dorsai, and a Lensman in acute detail, knew more about the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee, and was a role-playing game fanatic. … Couldn’t have passed for normal if he’d wanted to.

This is far from unique – there’s a definite whiff of Salman Rushdie in places, and the sections where Oscar’s grandfather falls foul of Trujillo reminded me of Louis de Bernières’ Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord, where torture and turmoil are made almost seductive by the vigour of the prose – but Díaz as a storyteller has considerable charm that gets him away with a lot. Sometimes there’s a sense that he’s trying to cram too much in: the book tries to be a family saga, a coming-of-age story, and an immigrant account of “the inextinguishable longing for elsewheres.” There is also an annoying number of footnotes in Robert Walser-sized text, detailing the political and cultural history of the Dominican Republic.

One interesting aspect of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is who is telling us the story. This seems to switch, so that at times we are in the hands of an omniscient but personal narrator – “your humble Watcher” – which may be Díaz himself, while at others Oscar’s schoolfriend Yunior takes over, or in one section, a female I struggled to identify. They all bring aspects of themselves to their direct or distanced reports of Oscar, taking us from decades before his birth right up to the ending which is dramatic, but not entirely surprising. Well, it does warn you, as early as the front cover, that his life is going to be brief.


  1. Have to say that the UK cover looks not unlike a children’s book. I like it not. But then, not overly keen on the US cover either. I’m so fickle.

  2. John, thanks so much for your congrats. Would love to have met you at the awards and had a good ol’ book natter.

    I really want to read the Diaz book, but it’s been so unbelievably hyped on the other side of the pond that I’m afraid of being disappointed.

  3. Your hat trick is well-deserved, Sinéad! (For anyone who hasn’t noticed the box at the top right of my blog, or who’s reading this after it comes down, Sinéad last night won the Best Arts & Culture Blog for the third year running at the Irish Blog Awards.)

    If you buy into the hype then I suspect you will be disappointed: what I didn’t mention above is that it made all kinds of Best of the Year lists in the US. I wouldn’t have placed it that high, but I did enjoy it and the best way to approach it is without expectations … though that’s now impossible, not least because of what I’ve written above!

  4. Terrible, terrible British cover. However, truth be told, the US one isn’t up to much either!

    What is going on with book design at the moment!? I recently blogged about the terrible UK cover for George Steiner’s excellent My Unwritten Books — the US version for this title has real grace, the British one is a mess …

  5. Dominican Dictators – A few years ago, I read “In the Name of Salome” by Julia Alvarez.

    An interesting tale of how the women had to survive without the men of the family when another dictator ruled. And how one of the main characters was trying to write poems while trying to feed the family.

    This novel is set years early from Diaz’ books.

  6. Since joining Bookmooch I’ve got a fair few novels from the US with their cover art instead of the UK version. Mostly I’ve not been that keen on their approach. They seem to go for quite busy, traditional and sometimes soft-focus covers (but perhaps that says more about my choice of reading!). But you’ve tipped the argument the other way with this example. The UK one is truly vile. But something that still bothers me about the US one (and most of their novels) is why do they have to write ‘A Novel’ on them? We look at the back to know whether we are getting fiction / non-fiction. Do you think the ‘A Novel’ tag is some sort of disclaimer so people won’t read something and believe it too much?

  7. The best I can say for the UK cover is that it’s presumably supposed to look like the sort of cartoony 3-D writing that a geeky schoolboy might doodle during class (er, not that I’m speaking from experience or anything) – but it’s still damned ugly.

    Mark, that Steiner UK cover plumbs new depths! Looks like it was designed by the Ryanair in-house press ads team.

    Thanks for the reference Isabel. I certainly haven’t read any other books set in the Dominican Republic so aspects of Oscar Wao were certainly an eye-opener.

    Jem, as hinted in the main text above, I agree that US book design generally lags behind UK (though there are always counter-examples). Too often the cover illustration and the text seem to be unrelated, when really they should form a seamless whole. As for ‘A Novel,’ I suspect it’s an example of US producers wildly underestimating the intelligence of their public: they worry that people might think it’s a biography perhaps. It’s the same mindset that leads US sitcoms occasionally to be named after the title character or (worse) the star, as in Roseanne, The Cosby Show, Frasier, Joey and of course, in the case of the ‘timeless’ (I mean ‘short-lived’) US version of One Foot in the Grave, the classically simple, er, Cosby.

  8. It’s the same mindset that leads US sitcoms occasionally to be named after the title character or (worse) the star, as in Roseanne, The Cosby Show, Frasier, Joey and of course, in the case of the ‘timeless’ (I mean ’short-lived’) US version of One Foot in the Grave, the classically simple, er, Cosby.

    And don’t forget both remakes of Fawlty Towers: Amanda’s and Payne.

  9. Just finished this today and loved it. There was a time early on, when it was being narrated by his sister Lola, that I thought I wasn’t going to like it… I really don’t like the sassy teenage girl stereotype, and then the tale of her mother who was remarkably the same, surprise surprise. But Oscar is entirely loveable and the story of his grandfather had me gripped. That was enough to swing me over to a 5-star rating.

  10. I’m 2/3 of the way through this at the moment, and liking but not loving it. I want to spend more time with Oscar, frankly, and less with his ancestors, even though there are very interesting sections to their stories.

  11. My feelings precisely, JRSM. Oscar does reappear in the last sections of the book but it wasn’t enough to repair the damage in my view. But I’m glad you liked it, Colette!

  12. I think the book was wonderful he definitely deserved the prize, I just loved how he changed the narrators so smoothly that if you were not paying attention to the story you would not know who is speaking. He’s a great author and I just hope that he publishes something soon; I don’t want to have to wait another 10 years. Hurray to Junot!!!!

  13. I think the ‘Life’ in the title was meant to encompass his family through the generation from the grandparents where the ‘fuku’ was deemed to originate right down to poor Oscar who seems to be the last victim of the curse. Which really makes sense in context of what Diaz is trying to do with this book which is very epic in scope. The footnotes are also deliberately put in there to throw the readers off the dictatorial voice of the story. Most of what he is trying to do with the novel he explained in this podcast of his talk at the key Wesy Literary Seminar in January of this year: http://www.kwls.org/lit/podcasts/2008/01/junot_diaz_january_18_2008.cfm

    I guess the critics and judges must have nailed what he was hoping to achieve with the book what with both the NBCC Award and the Pulitzer.

    Alos, I so damn love this novel. And you should too. Nigger please! 🙂

  14. Great book, although I’ll agree the (US) cover wasn’t great (other cover is hideous). Footnotes were annoying at parts; I understand why he was using them, but much like interesting punctuation or parentheses, it’s easy to go overboard and I felt like it did at times.

    The unidentified female was Lola, no? That section of the novel appeared as a short in New Yorker a few months back.

  15. Finally read “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, loved it, best US novel I’ve read in years. Don’t like either its US or UK cover. I thought the footnotes were great in giving an historical perspective to the story. This is about the only time I looked forward to footnotes. Where else would I have learned about the International playboy Porfirio Rubirosa?

  16. I too liked the footnotes and the story they told. While on first reading they were distracting and took some getting used to, on second reading (and this novel does reward a revisit) when you knew their purpose, they begin to tell a parallel story — not so long as to deserve separate chapters, but one that definitely influences the rest of the novel.

  17. “One interesting aspect of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is who is telling us the story. This seems to switch, so that at times we are in the hands of an omniscient but personal narrator – “your humble Watcher” – which may be Díaz himself, while at others Oscar’s schoolfriend Yunior takes over, or in one section, a female I struggled to identify.”

    -> Very true. That’s exactly what I struggled with too when reading the book. I have to say the first 30% of the book really doesn’t let you settle in. It’s quite difficult to adjust to the style and the many, many footnotes. In the end, of course, it’s still an excellent book. I have written a review about it a few days ago (link above).


  18. I have nothing but fond memories of reading this, and it seems to have gone up a grade or two retrospectively as I ponder it now. I remember thinking the footnotes were a superb digression that didn’t at all detract. Had I not read it alongside Netherland I might’ve given it its due at the time. Brilliant omniscient voice wherever it was meant to be coming from.

  19. I came across an interesting reference to this the other day on the blog of science fiction writer Walter Jon Williams: http://walterjonwilliams.blogspot.com/2009_01_01_archive.html

    He was at a dinner with Junot and has the following to say:

    “Junot mentioned in the subsequent interview that he wasn’t just riffing on these elements, he had something in mind. He was describing the inner life of a Dominican immigrant, and of Dominican experience, for a USian audience, and thought that the best way to describe the horror and madness and genius of Santo Domingo was to approach it as an alien world, through the medium of science fiction.”

    So clearly Junot regards this as an essentially SFnal work, which I have to admit it didn’t strike me from afar as (I haven’t read it yet).

    The rpg references seem pretty intrusive, I opened it in the shop the other day and saw a reference to someone taking 4d10 damage. I rather wonder about that, the overlap between those interested in literary fiction and those who play rpgs isn’t I suspect that huge (meaning perhaps that many readers will miss his intended reference points?), most people get into rpgs through sf and fantasy genre fiction which again suggests to me he intended his book for a primarily sf audience. I’m comfortable with geek references, but I do find myself wondering if the sheer amount of geekery in this could amount to self-indulgence. Any thoughts?

  20. I enjoyed the inclusion of such elements, in the same way that I loved the geek-demotic pervasion in Microserfs. I like things viewed through a prism of marginalia, or a limited field. With regards to readers ‘missing’ things, all I can say is, I like books that rock a hip delivery and still work, as there aren’t that many. People were largely annoyed by the Vernon God Little ‘voice’, which to me was a breath of fresh air and worked fabulously (though don’t read it again any time soon – it palled second time around). And what about context? There is a certain charm to be had, surely, from lending ones ear to an unfamiliar delivery and riding the music inherent in unfamiliar words? I’m not sure you need to know implicitly what everything means, as long as the essence is digestible…?

  21. I agree with your last sentence Lee, indeed I doubt any of us ever catch everything in a text. In fact, if I thought my take (or anyone else’s) on a book was the sole take possible, with all clear from one analysis and nothing missed, I’d think less of the book because of that. A good work should surely permit of layers of understanding, differences of interpretation, all that good stuff. I wrote up Revolutionary Road recently, and since doing so I’ve thought of a number of different (and equally viable) analyses one could make of it. It’s a dense book with a lot contained in it, I find the idea I missed stuff heartening, it gives something to reread for.

    Microserfs is an interesting comparison, I enjoyed that and the geek-demotic pervasion (a phrase that should be a blog title in its own right) was part of what made it fun.

    Hm, good reply, I shall think more about this one.

  22. I am neither a gamer nor a sf fan, yet I found these elements in Diaz intriguing, probably precisely because I didn’t understand them readily. Just as he uses the footnotes effectively to introduce the history of the DR. I agree with Max’s assessment that this is one of those books that can — and should — be read from a number of different perspectives. I know when I read it a second time I paid a lot more attention to family than I did on the first read, when I think I was more interested in the social and political context. Which is part of what makes it a very good book.

  23. Well, clearly my fears were unfounded. I do in fact play rpgs, among other hobbies, and though I wouldn’t call myself an sf fan (it’s a very small proportion these days of what I read) I certainly used to be one. Perhaps my awareness of those elements simply made them stand out to me more prominently when I browsed it, thus distorting my image of the work.

    It sounds like this is a book which is large, and contains multitudes, I shall set aside my concerns about possible self-indulgence and add it to the pile.

    At which point, I can only say thanks to all for helping with my queries, and to John for his review. Well, sort of thanks, my TBR pile is already vast and groaning and there is part of me which wishes the answers had been less persuasive on the book’s account…

  24. I too have a groaning, demanding, taunting pile of books that beseech me to stop evading my responsibility to them each time I pass…one on the table aside my bed, one in the spare room, and one downstairs…I have just pledged to myself a new system: the spare-bedroom pile will be ‘shelved’ and ONE small pile permed from the other two can now jostle for attention once the three on the go are finished…and, I must say, Junot Diaz would clearly belong in the new, single pile, right at the top. Yeah, I’ve done this before, and the pile slowly accumulates mass as outrageously unjustified Amazon purchases and charity-shop rummages ruin my diligence to a more efficient method…….

  25. How fascinating, Sheila, I had no idea that Oscar Wao started out as a stand-alone story. Oddly, I am currently reading Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man and finding it excellent, but had a sudden quail of doubt when I read that it was an expanded version of an article she wrote for the Observer newspaper in 2006. It makes one wonder how much could reasonably be left out.

    1. Yes, I understand what you mean about the quail of doubt. I stumbled upon the short story, quite by accident, while googling Diaz’ name. I had already finished the novel, but couldn’t help wondering about the transformation of a story which flows beautifully into the novel as it is. I agree that the footnotes are some of what’s best about Oscar Wao.

    2. John – The Tall Man was expanded only in the sense that after Hooper wrote the article (originally for The Monthly, an Australian magazine) she was contracted to write a book, which then involved an extra couple of years of research and gives a more rounded perspective on the issue, I think. I hope you stuck with it.

  26. While I do think the story may have been Diaz’s inspiration, for anyone who has read both the novel is far different from the story. I have no problem with someone who thinks the story is better — but it is a totally different piece of work (even if it does share the same title) from the novel. What is interesting to me is how the original idea expanded itself into a far broader concept. Obviously, I am one of those who find the novel to be very worthwhile — and for me certainly an improvement on the New Yorker story.

  27. Having already lauded the copious footnotes in Oscar Wao, I can’t imagine this particular piece of work being anything remotely like a vastly truncated version. I, as I’ve said, enjoy digressions, and with an engaging narrator, the more rambling wanderings the better. In any case, the book works superbly, though I am intrigued as to the form of the short version. And I’d agree with KevinfromCanada: what led to the growth and expansion of the story is something I’d be interested in finding out.

  28. A note on the “omniscient but personal narrator”….the narrator throughout the book (with the exception of the chapters Lola narrates about herself) is Yunior – Oscar’s roommate and Lola’s one time boyfriend.

    It is interesting to consider how/why he knows so much about the de Leon family, but if you read carefully he is identified when he first tells how he and Oscar became roommates, and if you look back he is in fact narrating the entire story.

  29. Well, now that I know that the book has a different British cover I can dislike the book in two versions. HATED IT! I’ve renamed the book “the brief PONDEROUS live of Oscar Wao”. The best part about it was learning about Trujillo in the footnotes.

  30. Nice pun Alan! I had mixed feelings about the book, but oddly it’s become one of those that I’ve grown warmer towards in the time since I read it. I suspect that may be a journey you won’t be undertaking though! Thanks for your comment.

    Thanks also Dora, for the insight. I do plan to re-read the book at some point so I’ll bear that in mind.

  31. I just finished reading the book and despite the high expectations, I wasn’t disappointed.
    As John Self mentions, there a few aspects of this book that make it different. One of them is that there are more than one narrator. One is Oscar’s sister, Lola, and the other one is Yunior, Oscar’s friend and for some time Lola’s boyfriend. But one aspect that I find remarkably strange is that author tells several stories throughout the novel and in every instance the reader already knows how it is going to end. Still, though, Diaz’s prose is so fascinating that you keep on reading even though you already know exactly where he is leading you.

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