The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
First edition hardcover
|September 6, 2007|
|Media type||Print (hard and paperback)|
|LC Class||PS3554.I259 B75 2007|
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) is a novel written by Dominican American author Junot Díaz. Although a work of fiction, the novel is set in New Jersey in the United States, where Díaz was raised and deals explicitly with the Dominican Republic experience under dictator Rafael Trujillo. The book chronicles both the life of Oscar De León, an overweight Dominican boy growing up in Paterson, New Jersey who is obsessed with science fiction and fantasy novels and with falling in love, as well as the curse that has plagued his family for generations.
Narrated by multiple characters, the novel incorporates a significant amount of Spanglish and neologisms, as well as references to fantasy and science fiction films and books. Through its overarching theme of the fukú curse, it additionally contains elements of magical realism. It received highly positive reviews from critics, who praised Díaz's writing style and the multi-generational story. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao went on to win numerous prestigious awards in 2008, such as the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
- 1 Concept
- 2 Plot
- 2.1 Part I
- 2.2 Part II
- 2.3 Part III
- 3 Style
- 4 Themes and motifs
- 5 Literary allusions
- 6 Critical reception
- 7 Adaptations
- 8 References
- 9 External links
The book chronicles both the life of Oscar De León, an overweight Dominican boy growing up in Paterson, New Jersey who is obsessed with science fiction and fantasy novels and with falling in love, as well as the curse that has plagued his family for generations.
The middle sections of the novel center on the lives of Oscar's runaway sister, Lola; his mother, Hypatia Belicia Cabral; and his grandfather, Abelard. Rife with footnotes, science fiction and fantasy references, comic book analogies, and various Spanish dialects, the novel is also a meditation on story-telling, the Dominican diaspora and identity, masculinity, and oppression.
Most of the story is told by an apparently omniscient narrator who is eventually revealed to be Yunior de Las Casas, a college roommate of Oscar's who dated Lola. Yunior also appears in many of Diaz's short stories and is often seen as an alter ego of the author.
This novel opens with an introductory section which explains the fukú -- "generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World," and the zafa—a counterspell to the fukú. The narrator of the book, unknown to the reader at this point, explains that the story he is about to tell is his own form of a zafa.
Part I of the book contains an introductory section, as well as the first four chapters of the story, and runs for over half the novel's length.
Chapter one: Ghetto Nerd at the End of the World (1974–1987)
This chapter introduces the reader to the titular character Oscar de León. Oscar comes from a Dominican family, and is therefore expected to be successful with girls. However, Oscar is more successful with science fiction, cartoons, reading, and role-playing games.
This chapter explains Oscar's history as a child through high school, focusing on his inability to find love.
When he was seven, Oscar had a week-long relationship with two girls at the same time, Maritza Chacón and Olga Polanco. When Maritza gives Oscar an ultimatum, he breaks up with Olga, only to be quickly dumped by Maritza. The narrator mentions that this event will cause all three of them to be unlucky in love.
In high school, Oscar is an outcast. He is very overweight and his fascination with "the Genres" causes him to be teased. When his two friends Al and Miggs both find girlfriends and do not involve Oscar (or try to help Oscar find a girlfriend), Oscar quickly stops spending time with them.
During his senior year of high school Oscar takes an SAT review course. While there he sees a girl, named Ana Obregón, reading Tropic of Cancer. Impressed by her literariness he introduces himself and shortly begins to spend a lot of time with her. Oscar shortly falls in love with Ana. When her ex-boyfriend Manny returns from the Army, Ana stops spending time with Oscar. It is around this time that Oscar begins to start writing heavily, science fiction or fantasy stories, mostly centered on the end of the world.
When Oscar discovers that Manny has been physically abusing Ana, Oscar takes his uncle's gun and stands outside of Manny's apartment, but Manny never returns that night.
The chapter ends with Oscar revealing his love to Ana, Ana rejecting him, and Oscar deciding to go to college at Rutgers.
Chapter two: Wildwood (1982–1985)
The narrative changes to the first person, ostensibly from the point of view of Lola, Oscar's sister. Díaz commented in a talk given on September 20, 2012 that this change in narrative style is meant to be understood as Lola's story dictated by the lens of the narrator, Yunior, which explains the temporary second person at the outset. It explores the distant and often verbally abusive relationship that Lola has with her Old World Dominican mother, and Lola's resulting rebellion.
It opens with Yunior telling, in the second person (after a few pages changing to first person "Lola"), the story of how Lola found out her mother had breast cancer. It then proceeds to explore the negative relationship that Lola had with her mother. This poor relationship causes Lola to run away from home to live with her boyfriend and his father on the Jersey Shore. After a bit of time, Lola finds herself again unhappy and calls home. She talks with Oscar and convinces him to bring money and meet Lola at a coffee shop. When they meet up, Lola discovers that Oscar told their mother about the meeting.
In an effort to run away from the coffee shop and from her mother, Lola accidentally knocks her cancer-ridden mother over. When Lola turns around to make sure her mother is okay, her mother grabs Lola by the hand, revealing that she was faking crying in an effort to get Lola to come back.
As a result of her running away, Lola is sent to live with her grandmother, La Inca, in the Dominican Republic.
Chapter three: The Three Heartbreaks of Belicia Cabral (1955–1962)
This chapter introduces the reader to the history of Oscar and Lola's mother, whose full name is revealed to be Hypatía Belicia Cabral, though she is usually referred to simply as Beli.
It is revealed that Beli's family died when she was one, with rumors that Trujillo was responsible. She was sold to a series of abusive foster families until her father's sister, La Inca, rescues her from such a life. La Inca repeatedly tells Beli that her father was a doctor, and that her mother was a nurse as a way to remind Beli of her heritage. La Inca brings Beli back to her hometown of Baní, where La Inca runs a bakery.
At the age of 13, Beli lands a scholarship at El Redentor, one of the best schools in Baní. There, she falls in love with a light-skinned boy named Jack Pujols, and spends a lot of her time trying to earn his affection, to no avail. Because she is poor and dark-skinned, Beli is often made fun of, and is a social outcast. However, during the summer of sophomore year, Beli quickly develops into a full grown and well endowed woman, and the book describes how Beli becomes very popular with men of all ages.
With her new body, Beli is finally able to catch the attention of Jack Pujols and loses her virginity to him. However, when they are discovered in a closet together, Beli is kicked out of school. Instead of transferring to a different school, however, she earns a job at a restaurant run by two Chinese-Mexican immigrant brothers, Juan and José, where she works as a waitress.
After a time, Beli goes to a club with another waitress named Constantina. There, she meets a gangster, and the two of them form a relationship. After a while, Beli is fired from her job. Although the Gangster's authority quickly gets her her job back, she feels it is not the same and resigns. Eventually, Beli becomes pregnant with the Gangster's child. It is then revealed that the gangster is in fact married to one of Trujillo's sisters, "known affectionately as La Fea" (The Ugly). When La Fea discovers that Beli is pregnant with her husband's child, she has two large cops resembling Elvis, with pompadour hairstyles, kidnap Beli, with plans to take her to have a forced abortion. As she is being led to the car, she sees a third cop who does not have a face. Before the cops can drive away, Beli spots her former employers, Juan and José, as well as her former coworkers and calls for help. They come to her rescue and Beli manages to get back to her old home. However, she is tricked into thinking the Gangster is outside in his car, and runs out to meet him, only to run into the same cops from before. The two cops physically beat Beli and leave her close to death, and continue to do so in the cane field. Her fetus dies due to the injuries.
When she discovers that Beli has been taken, La Inca begins to pray very intensely, and in short order, a small but intense prayer group forms around La Inca.
Back in the cane field, after she has been left for dead, a mongoose with golden eyes appears and leads Beli out of the cane, telling her that she will have two children. As Beli returns to the road, she is picked up by a group of traveling musicians. Thanks to La Inca's connections in the medical community, Beli is nursed back to health.
After Beli returns to La Inca's care, it quickly becomes apparent that Beli will not be safe in the Dominican Republic under Trujillo, and so she is sent to live in New York.
Chapter four: Sentimental Education (1988–1992)
This chapter explores Oscar's time at Rutgers, and introduces the narrator, Yunior, who was Oscar's roommate and Lola's boyfriend. Yunior is a big guy, with an even bigger heart. The narrator begins to tell his own story, saying “it” (his involvement with the de Leons) started when he was jumped in New Brunswick on the way home from a club. Lola was the only one who came and took care of him when he was recovering. He admits he cared about Lola even though he thinks he is not supposed to care about anything, and despite the fact that she is not the kind of girl he usually goes for because she is tall with no breasts and huge hips and a butt. Yunior (the name of the narrator is first revealed on p. 169) describes his first kiss with Lola when she asks him to drive her home.
Promising to keep an eye on Oscar while Lola is abroad, Yunior rooms with him the next year in the dorm called Demarest. Lola is as surprised as Yunior is. Yunior has always hated Demarest because it is full of artists, freaks, and losers. Oscar and Yunior get a room specified in the “writing” section. Yunior rooms with Oscar partially because of Lola but also because he would have had to room off campus otherwise and he could not afford it. When Yunior moves in, Oscar tells him he is cursed, but Yunior is not fazed by it. In retrospect, he thinks he probably should have run the other way. Yunior states he has never met a Dominican like Oscar. Oscar is a nerd who writes fifteen to twenty pages a day, and puts signs on their door in fantasy languages from his books. When Yunior comes home at night, he often finds Oscar watching Akira, a Japanese post-apocalyptic film, or role-playing. Yunior admits that Oscar is a considerate roommate, and Yunior does his part to return the favor by cooking dinner and reading some of Oscar’s writing. Yunior tries to give advice to Oscar on how to get girls, but he also believes that Oscar is too nerdy and too fat to get a girl. In addition, Oscar does not want to change. When Yunior’s girlfriend Suriyan dumps him for sleeping with a girl named Awilda, Yunior makes Oscar his project. He takes him running every day. After a while, Oscar quits. Yunior gets angry—Oscar resists, and Yunior pushes him. Lola calls from abroad (in Spain) and they fight—she tells him never to speak to her again. Oscar tried to apologize to Yunior but Yunior did not apologize back and remained cool towards Oscar. Yunior describes how his friends taunt Oscar “Tú no eres nada de dominicano” (You are not one bit Dominican) to which Oscar would protest that he is. On Halloween, Oscar dresses up as Doctor Who, from the TV show; Yunior thought he looked like “that fat homo” Oscar Wilde, their friend Melvin heard “Oscar Wao” and that’s how Oscar got his nickname. Oscar falls in love with a beautiful crazy Puerto Rican goth girl named Jenni Muñoz, also known as La Jablesse. She once turned Yunior down, and he is still a little put off by it. Oscar and Jenni become friends and started to hang out, much to Yunior’s surprise. Yunior admits he reads Oscar’s journal to find out what they talk about, which is mostly poetry and literature. Oscar starts jogging again and making more of an effort to look good. Then Jenni gets a boyfriend and stops hanging out with Oscar. Oscar is depressed and stops writing. Yunior calls Lola because he is worried. Two weeks later Oscar walks in on her and her new boyfriend naked. Oscar freaks out, insults her, and rips posters off her walls. Yunior stops him, but from then on Oscar is thought of as a psycho, and that is how that school year ends. The last night rooming together, they get drunk, and Yunior leaves. Oscar continues to drink and walks onto a train bridge in New Brunswick. When the train is coming, Oscar sees the golden mongoose, they look into each other’s eyes, and then it is gone. Oscar has left a suicide note for Yunior, Lola, Beli and Jenni. He jumps off the bridge and lands on the median and lives. Yunior refers to this period as the fall. Beli, Yunior, and Lola visit Oscar at the hospital. Lola and her mother are fighting. Oscar tells Yunior he believes the curse made him do it, and Yunior does not believe him. Lola and Yunior have a brief conversation about whether or not Oscar should live in Demarest again, and Yunior leaves without fulfilling his desire to kiss Lola. The next year at school Oscar showed up at Yunior’s dorm and they have a short conversation updating each other on their lives. Oscar visits Yunior occasionally but Yunior never visits him. During winter finals, Yunior runs into Lola on the bus and asks her on a date. She accepts reluctantly. They start a relationship and Yunior promises never to lie to Lola. In the spring, Yunior moves back into Demarest with Oscar. Yunior again admits to reading Oscar’s journal, reporting that the fall after the fall was dark for Oscar. He would take midnight drives in his mother’s car, sometimes almost falling asleep at the wheel, and then at the last minute waking up.
Part II of the book contains an introductory section, as well as chapters Five and Six of the story.
Chapter five: Poor Abelard (1944–1946)
This chapter is the story of Abelard, Belicia's father (Oscar and Lola's grandfather), and the "Bad Thing he said about Trujillo," which causes his family to be torn apart leaving most family members dead. The dictator, Trujillo, known for his sexual desire for young girls, whose families cannot protect them, learns that Abelard's oldest daughter, Jaquelyn, has become a beautiful young teenager. As a father Abelard does not want to give his daughter to Trujillo, as so many other fathers had been forced to do, and does not bring her to the event it had been demanded she come to. Some four weeks later Abelard is arrested for supposedly making a joke that there were no bodies in the trunk of his car. As Trujillo's henchmen disposed of opponents this way he was accused of slandering the dictator. After his arrest and torture his wife learns she is pregnant with what turns out to be her third daughter, Belicia. Two months after the baby's birth she is killed by an army truck in a probable suicide. Her two older daughters die under suspicious circumstance and the baby is taken to be a criada, a child slave. Beli is given over to the care of a foster family, which treats the young child abhorrently. Mistreated and bearing the scars of the hot oil thrown on her back she is rescued at the age of nine by her father's cousin, La Inca, whom she comes to regard as her mother.
Chapter six: Land of the Lost (1992–1995)
This chapter is about the post-college life of Oscar, and the time he spends in the Dominican Republic. He falls in love with an older prostitute named Ybón Pimentel. This results in Oscar being severely beaten, reflecting the same situation of his mother. The golden mongoose, which saved his mother's life, returns to save Oscar's life. Oscar returns to the United States.
Part III of the book contains chapters Seven and Eight, an unnamed section, and the novel's epilogue, "The Final Letter." Part III contains an introductory section where Oscar visits and lies to Yunior about his plans for the future. They also discuss Yunior's relationship with Lola.
Chapter seven: The Final Voyage
Oscar returns to the Dominican Republic to write and to attempt to be with Ybón. His attempts take place over twenty-seven days in which he writes numerous letters to Ybón and shakes off any attempts from family or friends, including Lola, Yunior, La Inca, and Clives, to forget Ybón. Ybón herself resists Oscar for fear of the Capitan, but Oscar is persistent and waves off his family's fears as misunderstanding of their love.
Oscar is captured by the Capitan's friends, whom Yunior calls Gorilla Grodd and Solomon Grundy, and they drive Oscar (and Clives) again to the cane field. Oscar reiterates the power of love and indicates that death would turn him into a "hero, an avenger. Because anything you can dream... you can be." They then shoot Oscar, but his speech suggests that he is fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming something worth writing about. The chapter ends with the word "Oscar" interrupted by a dash. It is unclear if this is interrupted narration for Yunior or a direct address to Oscar.
Chapter eight: The End of the Story
The narrator reveals the eventual fates of the characters. Beli's cancer returns one year after Oscar's death, killing her ten months later. Yunior speculates that she had given up. La Inca moves back to Bani. Lola breaks up with Yunior, asserting herself after having had enough of his cheating. She soon after meets someone in Miami, marries him, and has a baby girl, named Isis. Yunior has dreams of Oscar for ten years while his life deteriorates, until he hits rock bottom, and follows Oscar's request presumably to write this novel. At the time of the novel, Yunior is married in New Jersey (almost faithfully) and teaches composition at Community College. He and Lola still run into each other occasionally. Although he still thinks about her and how he might have saved their relationship, they only ever talk about Oscar.
The Final Letter
This serves as an epilogue to the novel wherein Yunior describes letters he and Lola received from Oscar before he died. Lola was told to expect Oscar’s novel in the mail, which never arrives. Yunior, on the other hand, finds out that Oscar and Ybón did consummate their relationship.
Instead of Díaz directly telling the story to the reader, he creates an aesthetic distance by speaking through the novel's narrator Yunior. Yunior provides analysis and commentary for the events he is relaying in the novel. His speech often exemplifies code switching, switching rapidly from a lively, Caribbean-inflected vernacular, replete with frequent usage of profanity to wordy, eloquent, and academic prose. This runs in parallel to several central themes of the novel regarding identity, as Yunior's code switching alludes to a struggle between his Dominican identity and his identity as a writer. Code switching between Spanish and English is also central to the narrative itself of the book, as characters switch back and forth as they see fit.
The narration of the book also shifts away from Yunior to another character at several key moments in the story. In chapter two, Lola narrates her own story from the first person. This is foreshadowing of the intimacy between Lola and Yunior yet to come. The beginning of chapter two also features the use of second person narration, rarely used in literature.
Diaz's use of Yunior as the main narrator of the book strengthens the idea of the novel as metafiction. Yunior reminds the reader consistently that he is telling the story, as opposed to the story happening in its own right.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao makes extensive use of footnotes to the point that many of the characters are developed in the footnotes in addition to the story. Rather than just provide factual background, Yunior's narrative continues in the footnotes just as it does in the body of the novel. When describing Oscar’s deep love of science fiction and fantasy literature, Yunior continues in the footnotes: “Where this outsized love of genre jumped off from no one quite seems to know. It might have been a consequence being Antillean (who more sci-fi than us?)... ” The presence of Yunior's footnotes, therefore, remind the reader that there is always more to one's story.
Yunior even makes reference in the footnotes to his present life earlier in the novel than when he describes it in Chapter Eight. “In my first draft, Samaná was actually Jarabacoa, but then my girl Leonie, resident expert in all things Domo, pointed out that there are no beaches in Jarabacoa. ” Yunior thus builds the writing of the novel and his relationship with Oscar into the greater history of the Dominican Republic. The many science fiction references throughout the novel and footnotes emphasize (Yunior believes) the fantastical elements of Dominican history. Yunior cites the fall of Mordor and the dispelling of evil from Middle Earth from The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a complement to the fall of Trujillo.
The footnotes contain many references specifically to the reign of Rafael Trujillo from 1930 to 1961, providing historical background on figures like the Mirabal Sisters, who were assassinated by Trujillo, and Anacaona, an indigenous woman who fought against the invading Spanish colonialists. While referencing historical figures, Yunior frequently includes the novel’s fictional characters in the historical events.
“But what was even more ironic was that Abelard had a reputation for being able to keep his head down during the worst of the regime’s madness-- for unseeing, as it were. In 1937, for example, while the Friends of the Dominican Republic were perejiling Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans and Haitian-looking Dominicans to death, while genocide was, in fact, in the making, Abelard kept his head, eyes, and nose safely tucked into his books (let his wife take care of hiding his servants, didn’t ask her nothing about it) and when survivors staggered into his surgery with unspeakable machete wounds, he fixed them up as best he could without making any comments as to the ghastliness of their wounds."
Yunior thus builds a context for the Dominican history, where the characters are used just as much in the footnotes as they are in the body of the novel.
Many of the footnotes ultimately connect back to themes of coming to a new world (underscored through the novel’s references to fantasy and sci-fi) or having one’s own world completely changed. Trujillo’s reign as revealed in the footnotes of the novel becomes just as dystopian as one of Oscar’s favorite science fiction novels.
Díaz moves between several styles in the novel as the narrative shifts to each of the characters. Oscar's speech reflects an autodidactic language based on his knowledge of fantasy, 'nerd' literature and his speech is filled with phrases like “I think she’s orchidaceous” and "I do not move so precipitously", whereas Yunior "affects a bilingual b-boy flow" and intersperses it with literary language. The story of the De Léon family is told and collected by the fictional narrator Yunior and the New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani has described the voice of the book as "a streetwise brand of Spanglish." He often gives his own commentary and analysis on the events he is relating in the story and sometimes reveals failings in his own life, both as a narrator and a person: "Players: never never never fuck with a bitch named Awilda. Because when she awildas out on your ass you’ll know pain for real."
His informal and frequent use of neologisms can be seen in sentences such as a description of Trujillo as "the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated" or his description of the effectiveness of Trujillo's secret police force: “you could say a bad thing about El Jefe at eight-forty in the morning and before the clock struck ten you’d be in the Cuarenta having a cattleprod shoved up your ass.”
"The Brief Wondrous Life..." also oscillates back and forth between English and Spanish. Yunior peppers the English-speaking novel with Spanish vocabulary and phrases and certain English sentences are built with Spanish syntax: "Beli might have been a puta major in the cosmology of her neighbors but a cuero she was not."
Oscar lives his life surrounded by the culture of fantasy and as Oscar describes them,"the more speculative genres", and the language of these cultures is strewn throughout the book along with Spanish. Brief phrases relating to games like Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop role-playing game terms are used as common colloquialisms: "He [Oscar] could have refused, could have made a saving throw against Torture, but instead he went with the flow."
|This section needs additional citations for verification. (March 2015)|
The novel first hints the style of magical realism by stating that the notion of fukú and zafá were popular in locations like Macondo, a fictional town used as the main setting in the Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. As Solitude is renowned for its elegant use of magical realism, the narrator of Oscar Wao expresses that this novel will also be heavily intertwined with the concept of fukú and zafa as the novel’s contents are filled with fukú and zafá. Surely enough, many magical, supernatural events occur in the novel such as the godlike mongoose’s rescuing Belicia and Oscar, and those events are narrated with mundane tone as if they were natural.
Magical realism of the novel serves a crucial purpose by enabling the juxtaposition of the supernatural, intangible being and a mortal. With magical realism and the following quotation from the narrator, “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”, the novel equates the two main antagonists of the story, fukú and Trujillo, by describing Trujillo as supernaturally powerful as fukú. Thanks to this juxtaposition, when Trujillo becomes assassinated, the novel successfully conveys that even the most powerful supernatural being can be defeated, ultimately implying the theme “Nothing is impossible”.
Other readers, however, reject the inclusion of this novel in the "Magic Realism" genre, which includes explicitly supernatural works by Murakami, Calvino, Kundera and Marquez, on the grounds that the "magic" in "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" is family folklore, and not a necessary plot element.
Themes and motifs
Mongooses appear throughout The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as guardians of the family. Historically, the mongoose was imported from Asia during the 18th century. Mongooses were imported to tropical islands such as the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Hawaii. Used to protect sugar cane fields from rat infestations, mongooses were pivotal in the DR's growing sugar economy. While the mongoose is transplanted from Asia, it retroactively becomes a "norm" within the DR's plantation system. While the mongoose guides Beli, its presence is necessary for sugar production. The mongoose is known for its sociability and cunning. Like the de Leon family, the mongoose is an immigrant, an invasive, non-native species. The mongoose was transplanted westward to the Dominican Republic, just as Oscar’s family was forced out of the Dominican Republic. Diaz has stated the importance of the mongoose as being alien, creating an other-worldly quality to its assistance. Furthermore, in a footnote, the mongoose is described as “an enemy of kingly charriots, chains, and hierarchies... an ally of Man”, suggesting the mongoose’s importance in helping the de Leon family not just for their misfortune but also as a means of undermining Trujillo’s oppression.
At the most superficial level, the mongoose can be equated with the zafa, the counter-spell to the family’s fukú. For example, when Beli is beaten in the canefield, a “creature that would have been an amiable mongoose if not for its golden lion eyes and the absolute black of its pelt”  motivates Beli and sings to her to guide her out of the canefield. The creature acts as her protector, saving her after the atrocities just committed against her. The mongoose further stops a bus directly in front of her, preventing her from being hit and providing her transportation to safety. Similarly, Oscar remembers a “Golden Mongoose” which appeared just before he throws himself from the bridge  and again when he is beaten in the canefield for the first time. In the canefield, the mongoose talks to Oscar and saves him just as Beli was saved. Furthermore, just as the singing mongoose leads Beli to safety, a singing voice leads Clives to Oscar.
This symbolic relationship is heightened by the transient nature of the mongoose, disappearing as suddenly as it appears. Each time the mysterious animal appears in a time of dire need, the narrator includes a disclaimer on the accuracy in the visions of the creature. In the case of Beli in the cane fields, the narrator shares that whether her encounter with the mongoose “was a figment of Beli’s wracked imagination or something else altogether” cannot be determined (149). Whether or not this creature is a figment of the young woman’s imagination, it led her to safety and provided hope in a situation where death seemed imminent. In having this character take on such a surreal nature with characteristics not found in most mongooses, such as the ability to talk and vanishing in the blink of an eye, Diaz establishes an uncertainty that mirrors the controversies over whether superstitions exist. While the encounters with the creature may or may not have happened, their significance in the book still holds strong just like the superstitions, because “no matter what you believe, the fukú believes in you” (5). The connection between a superstition and a magical character is more easily followed than one with an ordinary animal, highlighting the mongoose being a zafa against the de Leon’s fukú.
The re/appearances of canefields in Oscar Wao are symbolic. The scenes of physical violence against Beli and Oscar are set in this specific, geographical space of the sugar canefields. Sugar was introduced to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, then Hispaniola, through colonialism. Sugar and canefields were so important to the Spanish as they fueled their wealth and the creation of a white elite, and thus plantation economy, in Hispaniola.
They first appear when Beli is kidnapped and taken to be beaten in a canefield. Here, the canefields are surrounded by the context of the Trujillato. After (unknowingly) becoming involved with Trujillo’s sister’s husband, The Gansgster’s men assault Beli there. The canefields are thus a violent space where Trujillo’s henchpeople also take care of business. As written in footnotes, the Mirabal sisters were murdered there, too.  In this section of the book Yunior says, "Canefields are no fucking joke, and even the cleverest of adults can get mazed in their endlessness, only to reappear months later as a cameo of bones". Much later, after Oscar returns home to La Inca’s to try to be with Ybón, he also ends up assaulted in a canefield, but this time by the Capitan’s friends. A lot of the emotions and the atmosphere laid out in Oscar’s canefield scene parallels Beli’s.
The cornfields in the Dominican Republic are a space made significant through their history of slavery and violence—a racialized space. Canefields are where enslaved Africans were forced into labor and dehumanization. These Beli and Oscar canefield scenes are haunted by the displacement and violence against enslaved Africans, the displacement and genocide of indigenous folks, and also the revolts and resistance to these systems.
Power of appearance
Beli understood how advantageous appearance is in the social situations of the Dominican Republic, but not until she had undergone major physical and psychological changes. Beli desired the same romantic experience as Oscar, despising school in her early years from being “completely alone” (83). Her loneliness derived from her “defensive and aggressive and mad overactive” personality that pushed people miles away from her. Unlike Oscar, however, her predicament reversed, becoming not one of a lack of power, but an abundance. She had to choose whether or not to take advantage of her new curvaceous body which puberty had generously bestowed upon her. With these new curves she was thrown into a world where she could get what she wanted, where she was given attention without having to ask for it. Her model-like body presented her with the relationships that she could have never attained otherwise. After recovering from her initial shock of the metamorphosis, she discovered how “her desirability was in its own way, Power” (94). She had been presented with a magical sceptre that allowed her to satisfy her desires. Asking her not to abuse that power was akin to, as Díaz says it “asking the persecuted fat kid not to use his recently discovered mutant abilities” (94). By utilizing her appearance, she gained a complete understanding of the influences of her body.
The power of appearance in the era of Trujillo can not be underestimated, as seen by its dangerous consequences in the de León family history. Abelard Luis Cabral, Oscar’s grandfather, learned this first hand after repeatedly refusing to bring his first-born daughter Jacquelyn to Trujillo’s events. Trujillo’s rapacity towards women knew no bounds, employing “hundreds of spies whose entire job was to scour the provinces for his next piece of ass” (217). Trujillo’s appetite for ass was “insatiable” (217), pushing him to do unspeakable things. His culture of placing appearance above all else does nothing to deemphasize appearance in Dominican culture, seeing as in a normal political atmosphere people follow their leaders, much less in the tightly controlled Trujillan dictatorship. Abelard, by withholding his daughter’s “off-the-hook looks” (216) from Trujillo, he was in effect committing “treason” (217). His actions eventually resulted in Trujillo arranging for his arrest and eighteen-year sentence, where he was brutally beaten and treated to an endless series of electric shock treatments (237). During his imprisonment, Socorro committed suicide, Jackie “was found drowned” in a pool, Astrid is struck by a stray bullet, and his third child is born (248-250). Abelard and Socorro’s third child, a daughter they name Belicia, was born “black”, a terrible thing for the Dominicans, who viewed having a child of “black complexion as an ill omen” (248). They felt so strongly about this that Yunior, offering his own opinion, comments “I doubt anybody inside the family wanted her to live, either” (252). She eventually was tossed around the extended family and eventually “sold”, yes “That’s right-she was sold” (253). All of these tragedies as a result of the desire for a beautiful young lady, a by product of the preeminence given to physical appearance.
Even under Trujillo, however, the power of appearance is called into the question, as appearance's power ultimately takes second place to the power of words. Cabral is incarcerated, tortured and almost destroyed at least in part as a result of words he has spoken and written, and Trujillo has Cabral's entire library, including any sample of his handwriting, destroyed. As Trujillo never attempts to sleep with Jackie, the narrator and reader are left to wonder if at some level the motivation for this family ruin has to do with silencing a powerful voice.
Reexamining masculinity through Yunior and Oscar
Yunior and Oscar are character foils that illustrate two different types of masculinity: if Oscar’s nerdiness, fatness and awkwardness make him the antithesis of Dominican hypermasculinity, then Yunior, as a Don Juan and a state school player who can “bench 340 pounds” (170), is the embodiment of that identity. They also have completely opposite values: while Yunior cheats habitually and can’t appreciate even the most beautiful and loving women, Oscar is faithful and sees beauty in a middle-aged prostitute; while Yunior doesn’t value sex for anything other than physical pleasure (at least not at first), Oscar refuses to go to brothels (279). Yunior’s masculinity echoes that of Trujillo, who in his violent actions and lust for women, also embodies Dominican hypermasculinity.
Despite their differences, Yunior and Oscar become important to each other and develop an unusual friendship. As Oscar has no father or brothers, Yunior is the only male with whom he can discuss his romantic yearnings; Yunior is his access into masculinity. As for Yunior, Oscar models an alternative form of masculinity and ultimately pushes him to reexamine his ideas about manhood. VanBeest points out that in spite Oscar’s lack of machismo, he possesses “other masculine traits that Yunior admires.”  For example, Yunior envies the way Oscar can develop friendships with women (like Jenni) and talk to them about non-sexual topics. He also respects Oscar’s writing style and his ability to “write dialogue, crack snappy exposition, keep the narrative moving” (173). Finally, although Oscar dies in the end, Yunior admires how he was able to achieve real intimacy with a girl by being loving, faithful and vulnerable. VanBeest argues that Oscar “succeeds in educating Yunior, indirectly, in the responsibilities of manhood; after Oscar’s death, Yunior claims that it is Oscar’s influence that encourages him to stop following the dictates of el machismo and finally settle down and get married.”  At the end of the novel, Yunior manages to develop a healthier form of masculinity that allows him to love others and to achieve intimacy.
Through Yunior and Oscar’s friendship, Díaz critically examines Dominican machismo and shows how it can lead to violence and an inability to connect with others. Through the figure of Oscar, he explores alternatives to hypermasculinity. If “fukú” is “[the] manifestation of the masculine ideals imposed on the Dominican Republic herself,”  then is Oscar the zafa of this fukú.
Filling the blank pages – stories as "zafa" for the fukú of violence
Throughout the novel, violence is transmitted from the system of colonialism and dictators to the domestic sphere and perpetuated through the generations. Virtually all the relationships in the book – Trujillo and Abelard, Beli and the Gangster, Beli and Lola, Oscar and Ybón – are marked with physical or emotional abuse. Violence is an aspect of the “fukú” or curse that haunts the Cabrals and de Leons.
At the very beginning of the novel, it is explained that zafa is the “one way to prevent disaster from coiling around you, only one surefire counterspell that would keep you and your family safe” (7). In this way, zafa can be read as an undoing of colonialism because as fuku brings misery and bad luck, zafa has the potential to foil it and restore a more favorable balance.
Although by the end none of the characters seem to have escaped the cycle of violence or the effects of fukú, Yunior has a dream in which Oscar waves a blank book at him, and he realizes that this can be a “zafa” (325) to the family curse. Yunior also has hope that Isis, Lola’s daughter, will one day come to him asking for stories about her family history, and “if she’s smart and as brave as I’m expecting she’ll be, she’ll take all we’ve done and all we’ve learned and add her own insights and she’ll put an end to it [the fukú]” (331). Thus, the empty pages in Yunior’s dreams signify that the future has yet to be written despite the checkered past, in both his life and in the painful history of oppression and colonialism in the Dominican Republic. On the other hand, Iris potentially coming to Yunior to learn more about her uncle represents gaining an understanding of the past, which is key to decolonizing and pinpointing the structures that are systematically oppressive. Yunior implies that storytelling is a way to acknowledge the past and its influence over one’s life, a way to make sense of what has happened, and is the starting point for healing.
With the absence of any embodiments of white characters to emphasize the lasting impact of the colonial imaginary, the mysticism behind the fuku and zafa become that much more convincing. When interpreted as magic instead of as the literal actions of white people, the fuku and zafa transcend human beings and remind us that even when colonialism is not particularly obvious, it is a force that looms over all, and its effects must first be confronted before anyone can take action accordingly, as Yunior's dream suggests.
"For me, though, the real issue in the book is not whether or not one can vanquish the fukú—but whether or not one can even see it. Acknowledge its existence at a collective level. To be a true witness to who we are as a people and to what has happened to us. That is the essential challenge for the Caribbean nations—who, as you pointed out, have been annihilated by history and yet who’ve managed to put themselves together in an amazing way. That’s why I thought the book was somewhat hopeful at the end."
Comic books, science-fiction, and fantasy literature all play an important role in Oscar's upbringing and identity, and each is incorporated into the novel to reflect the world he lives in. Diaz has said that to dismiss the novel's reflexivity with fiction and fantasy is to do to the novel "exactly what Oscar suffered from, which is that...Oscar’s interests, his views of the world, were dismissed as illegitimate, as unimportant, as make-believe", and that the novel asks the reader "to take not only Oscar seriously but his interests seriously."
The novel opens with the epigraph: “Of what import are brief, nameless lives…to Galactus?” Diaz has said that this question can be read as being directed at the reader, "because in some ways, depending on how you answer that question, it really decides whether you're Galactus or not." In the Fantastic Four comic book however, Galactus is asking the question of Uatu the Watcher, whose role is played out in Diaz's novel by the narrator Yunior, indicating to Diaz that the question is both a "question to the reader but also a question to writers in general."
Early in the novel, Diaz aligns Oscar with comic book superheroes: "You want to know what being an X-man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto...Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest." Diaz hints at possible latent abilities or qualities Oscar may possess that will reveal themselves or develop later in the novel.
The novel describes the history of relationships between dictators and journalists in terms of comic book rivalries as well: “Since before the infamous Caesar-Ovid war they’ve [dictators and writers] had beef. Like the Fantastic Four and Galactus, like the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, like the Teen Titans and Deathstroke”
There is also a strong suggestion that the fantastical element of Oscar’s life is a powerful method for him to relate to other people and to the world around him. When he examines his own body in the mirror he feels "straight out of a Daniel Clowes book. Or like the fat blackish kid in Beto Hernández's Palomar." Oscar's vast memory of comic books and Fantasy/Science-fiction is recalled whenever he is involved in the text, and his identity is multiform, composed of scraps of comic book marginalia.
Diaz creates a distinct link between human beings' performative nature and the masks required to express it, and the masks worn by superheroes. When Oscar meets Ana, one of the many women with whom he falls in love, he notices different aspects of her life and "there was something in the seamlessness with which she switched between these aspects that convinced him that both were masks". Diaz connects the removal of masks with both the intimacy that springs from vulnerability and the concept of identity, hidden or otherwise. Oscar's infinite capacity for empathy and connection with other human beings is a superpower in its own right. Contemporary masculinity and contemporary power structures leave no room for vulnerability, but for Diaz, "the only way to encounter a human is by being vulnerable." The "man with no face" who reoccurs in several parts of the novel can also be read as a sort of mask embodying the fukú.
Fantasy and science-fiction
Diaz frequently uses references to works of science-fiction and fantasy. These references serve both to illuminate the world that Oscar lives in and create a parallel between the supernatural events in fantasy literature and the history of the Dominican Republic. In the opening pages of the novel, the narrator quotes Oscar as having said “What more sci-fi than Santo Domingo? What more fantasy than the Antilles?” One of Diaz's frequent references to J. R. R. Tolkien comes when he describes Trujillo: "Homeboy dominated Santo Domingo like it was his very own private Mordor." In another section, Felix Wenceslao Bernardino, an agent of Trujillo is metaphorically described as the Witchking of Angmar.
Near the end of the book Diáz comprehensively links the fantasy world of Middle-Earth with the world of the Dominican Republic and the novel.
At the end of The Return of the King, Sauron’s evil was taken by “a great wind” and neatly “blown away,” with no lasting consequences to our heroes; but Trujillo was too powerful, too toxic a radiation to be dispelled so easily. Even after death his evil lingered. Within hours of El Jefe dancing bien pegao with those twenty-seven bullets, his minions ran amok−fulfilling, as it were, his last will and vengeance. A great darkness descended on the Island and for the third time since the rise of Fidel people were being rounded up by Trujillo’s son, Ramfis, and a good plenty were sacrificed in the most depraved fashion imaginable, the orgy of terror funeral goods for the father from the son. Even a woman as potent as La Inca, who with the elvish ring of her will had forged within Banί her own personal Lothlόrien, knew that she could not protect the girl against a direct assault from the Eye.
Twice in the novel the mantra "Fear is the mindkiller" is repeated. The phrase originated in the Frank Herbert novel Dune and Oscar uses it to try and quell his own fear near the end of the story, to no avail.
Also, Diaz references Stephen King on a number of occasions, including a reference to Captain Trips, the fictional virus that wipes out mankind in The Stand, and a mention of being "flung into the macroverse" by "the ritual of Chud", a nod to the ending of It.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao received high acclaim from book critics, appearing in over thirty-five best-of-the-year book lists. The book won the John Sargent, Sr. First Novel Prize, the Dayton Peace Prize in Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008. New York magazine named it the Best Novel of the Year and Time magazine's Lev Grossman named it the best work of fiction published in 2007, praising it as "a massive, heaving, sparking tragicomedy". In a poll of American literary critics organised by BBC Culture (the arts and culture section of the international BBC website) in 2015, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was voted the twenty-first century's best novel so far.
In 2009, website The Millions polled 48 writers, critics, and editors, including Joshua Ferris, Sam Anderson, and Lorin Stein; the panel voted The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao the eighth-best novel since 2000, and readers ranked it first place.
A staged version of the novel, called Fukú Americanus, was adapted by Sean San Jose and co-directed by San Jose and Marc Bamuthi Joseph through San Jose’s Campo Santo theatre company in 2009. The production received mixed reviews, with one critic stating that "“Fukú" doesn't show us how that works or what the curse has to do with anything... for that, you have to read the book."
The novel's film rights were optioned by Miramax Films and producer Scott Rudin in 2007. Director Walter Salles and writer Jose Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries) were hired by Rudin to adapt the novel. According to Diaz, Miramax's rights on the book have since expired.
- Stetler, Carrie (April 7, 2008). "Pulitzer winner stays true to Jersey roots". The Star Ledger. Retrieved April 7, 2008.
- Muchnick, Laurie (April 7, 2008). "Junot Diaz's Novel, 'Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,' Wins Pulitzer". Bloomberg. Retrieved April 8, 2008.
- O'Rourke, Meghan (April 8, 2008). "Questions for Junot Díaz". Slate.
- Leyshon, Cressida (March 15, 2010). "The Book Bench: This Week in Fiction: Questions for Junot Díaz". The New Yorker.
- "New American short stories: The curse of machismo". The Economist. September 8, 2012. Retrieved June 10, 2013.
- Brand, Madeleine; Martínez, A (September 13, 2012). "Junot Diaz reflects on love in his latest book". Scpr.org. Retrieved June 10, 2013.
- Diaz, Junot (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead Books. p. 322. ISBN 978-1-59448-329-5.
- Diaz, Junot (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead Books. p. 21. ISBN 978-1-59448-958-7.
- Diaz (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. p. 132.
- Diaz (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. p. 209.
- Diaz (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. p. 83.
- Diaz (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. p. 245.
- Diaz (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. p. 215.
- Diaz (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. p. 35.
- Michiko, Kakutani (September 4, 2007). "Travails of an Outcast". The New York Times. Retrieved December 14, 2011.
- Diaz (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
- Diaz (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. p. 80.
- Diaz (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. p. 250.
- Diaz (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. p. 103.
- Diaz (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. p. 43.
- Diaz (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. p. 263.
- Diaz (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. p. 3.
- "Mortality Threats to Birds - Small Indian Mongoose (Herpestes javanicus)". American Bird Conservancy. Retrieved March 24, 2014.
- Barrios, Gregg. "Guest Interview: Junot Diaz". Retrieved May 4, 2011.
- Diaz (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. p. 151.
- Diaz (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. p. 149.
- Diaz (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. p. 190.
- Diaz (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. p. 301.
- Diaz (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, p. 157.
- Diaz (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, p. 149.
- VanBeest, Mackenzie. "Dueling Masculinities: Oscar’s and Yunior’s Journey to Manhood" (PDF). Retrieved December 13, 2013.
- Danticat, Edwidge (Fall 2007). "Junot Díaz". BOMB Magazine. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
- Jay, Paul. "Interview With Junot Diaz". Retrieved December 12, 2011.
- Díaz, Junot (2008). "Epigraph". The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (1st trade paperback ed.). New York: Riverhead Books. ISBN 978-1-59448-329-5.
- "An Interview with Junot Diaz". Retrieved December 12, 2011.
- Díaz (2008). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (trade paperback ed.). p. 22, Footnote 6. ISBN 978-1-59448-329-5.
- Díaz (2008). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (trade paperback ed.). p. 96.
- Díaz (2008). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (trade paperback ed.). p. 29.
- Díaz (2008). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (trade paperback ed.). p. 34.
- Jay, Paul. "Interview with Junot Diaz". Retrieved December 12, 2011.
- Diaz (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. p. 6.
- Diaz (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. p. 224.
- "The Wondrous Life of Junot Diaz". CBS News. June 8, 2008.
- Previous Winners, The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, retrieved November 27, 2011.
- Grossman, Lev (December 9, 2007). "Top 10 Fiction Books". Time Magazine. Retrieved April 8, 2008.
- Alison Flood, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao declared 21st century’s best novel so far", The Guardian, January 20, 2015.
- Editor, "The Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far): An Introduction", The Millions, September 21, 2009.
- C. Max Magee, "Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers", The Millions, September 25, 2009.
- Jones, Chad (May 12, 2009). "'Oscar Wao's' stage name: 'Fukú Americanus'". Review (SFGate). Retrieved December 8, 2014.
- Hurwitt, Robert (May 20, 2009). "Theater review: 'Fukú Americanus'". Review (SFGate). Retrieved December 8, 2014.
- Fleming, Michael (September 27, 2007). "Miramax, Rudin land 'Oscar' rights". Variety. Retrieved December 8, 2014.
- Rosario, Mariela (November 26, 2008). "'Motorcycle Diaries' Director Walter Salles to Adapt 'The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao' for the Big Screen". Latina Magazine. Retrieved May 19, 2013.
- "Pulitzer Prize-Winner Junot Diaz Writes the Book on Heartbreak (Video)". Wall Street Journal. September 11, 2012. Retrieved May 20, 2013.
- Audio recording of Junot Díaz reading from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, with commentary. From the Key West Literary Seminar, 2008.
- The Annotated Oscar Wao. Website explaining many of the book's Spanish phrases and cultural references
The Inheritance of Loss
by Kiran Desai
|National Book Critics Circle Award
by Roberto Bolaño