Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a hard book to pin down but it reminded me a bit of Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English, the way it pinpointed its characters in place and time. Lots of foreign words go unexplained in the course of this book – readers must learn by osmosis: you are dropped into the world of the de León family and you have to feel your way around. Nothing is contrived– Díaz is not interested in reader exposition and I like that.
The author’s offering is the story of a family cursed over generations by the Dominican terror: fukú. This curse can take many forms, as we come to see. As far as the family de León goes, there is Oscar, firstly and most predominately. Oscar is a lovesick ghetto nerd – a kind of tragedy version of Manny from Modern Family if he grew up in a different, more difficult way. Oscar loves women but they don’t love him back in the way that he wants when he outgrows his chubby childhood cuteness. His sister Lola, meanwhile, is fierce and wild – she battles with their mother Beli in her diminished, cancer-ravaged form. But when Beli’s young life is revealed, we learn that she was once wild and beautiful herself – a world away from the bitter crone she has become.
Díaz always wants to make sure we know why things are the way they are in this family. With every new story, with every step back in time, a new influence the their lives is revealed. Everything is recounted via our trusty narrator Yunior, Lola’s old boyfriend, who becomes entangled in Oscar’s sad and lonely life and can’t quite seem to shake himself free. There is a conspiratorial tone to the book – as readers, we are peeking in through the windows of the de León family home, watching events unfold.
The book explores the Dominican culture of hyper-masculinity, to which Oscar, with his melodramatic soppy tendencies, can never truly belong, and which will crush Beli and Lola’s spirits in its own way. It explores issues of race – the yearning to be lighter, straighter-haired, more European-featured (the words prieta, morena and black-black are everywhere). It also details the hissing jealousies that come with being thought of as too pretty, or too confident, by your peers. But, as with other things in this book, race and gender identity aren’t topics as such, they’re more of a backdrop to the story. Díaz offers a snapshot of Dominican life through the lens of one troubled family. It’s a book to be swept away in, not one to analyse, po-faced, in a dusty room. So in that spirit, I will step back from the book and just say that Díaz is a very strong writer with a powerful sense of place. His book will have you wanting to keep mining the seams of history he has cracked open, and he will have you learning something new without you even noticing.