The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao


To be honest, I can't think of that much to say about Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, that I didn't already write in last December's post on Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex. Replace Greek-Americans with Dominican-Americans, hermaphroditism with obesity, and references to classic Greek tragedy with references to sci-fi books and television shows, and you have pretty much transformed the one book into the other in four moves or less. Which is not to say that this is a bad example of the genre I like to call the Modern Family Epic. It's just that Lev Grossman's claim, on the back cover of my copy, that Oscar Wao is "an immigrant-family saga for people who don't read immigrant-family sagas" seems to me seven words too long: Díaz's book is par for the immigrant-family-saga course as far as I'm concerned.

If, unlike me, you gravitate toward this kind of story, I would recommend Oscar Wao. It's got everything fans of the genre no doubt look forward to: the multiple generations of a single family, stretching back to the Old Country and forward to the New; the flashbacks and flash-forwards which simultaneously reveal past and present mirrored storylines; the magical-realist touch of visions repeated over the generations and a family curse in which the reader can choose either to believe or not; the more-or-less explicit agenda of educating mainstream Americans about the political history of a country that doesn't make it into our textbooks. None of which are inherent negatives. I would never argue, for example, that mainstream Americans are not in need of some education about the history of other countries, particularly ones we've invaded multiple times and then proceeded to forget all about. But the combination of these elements together in a single piece of fiction became ubiquitous sometime between Cien años de solidad and Midnight's Children, and although I do love a few examples of the genre, this one offers nothing in particular to distinguish it from the herd.

Re-reading my Middlesex post, though, I do realize that the Díaz is less egregious than the Eugenides. It's leaner, for one thing. It does not attempt to sustain an epic tone for 600 pages, can even have a laugh at itself. Díaz has more respect for his readers' cognitive abilities than Eugenides for his, despite the intentional and deeply annoying overuse of footnotes to deliver history lessons to the assumed mainstream American reader. (It's true: am not on board with the postmodern footnote-o-philia that David Foster Wallace seems to have laid on the literary scene. And no, I have not read Infinite Jest, for this reason among several.) Most welcome of all, there is not the same ungodly level of coincidence and repetition in Díaz's novel, although the cane fields, the Faceless Man, and the Golden Mongoose do reappear at frequent intervals.

So too, the narrative voice is more engaging—although my feelings about said voice are mixed. A sample, before I go on:

Anywhere else his triple-zero batting average with the ladies might have passed without comment, but this is a Dominican kid we're talking about, in a Dominican family: dude was supposed to have Atomic Level G, was supposed to be pulling in the bitches with both hands. Everybody noticed his lack of game and because they were Dominican everybody talked about it. His tío Rudolfo (only recently released from his last and final bit in the Justice and now living in their house on Main Street) was especially generous in his tutelage. Listen, palomo: you have to grab a muchacha, y metéselo. That will take care of everything. Start with a fea. Coje that fea y metéselo! Tío Rudolfo had four kids with three different women so the nigger was without doubt the family's resident metéselo expert.

OK, so I think this passage is funny. Engaging. I laughed at all the parts I was supposed to, and even felt good about my ability to recognize some basic Spanish profanity. I appreciated Díaz's ability to combine a sharp evocation of life in the oppressed Dominican diaspora with a critique of the oppressive gender politics that prevail in same. But, two things. One: all the folks calling this prose "fresh" and "street-smart"? I feel extremely uncomfortable about that for reasons I'm having trouble isolating. I guess I just didn't find the overall book "fresh" at all. Competent, yes; a page-turner, perhaps; but essentially I found it to be a re-working of a decades-old set of genre conventions, a book whose only innovation is the occasional Spanglish phrase and a few "bitch"es or "nigger"s thrown into the mix. To good effect, don't get me wrong! The words are used effectively. But more than that is necessary before I start busting out with phrases like "one of contemporary fiction's most distinctive and irresistible new voices" (Michiko Kakutani). And a little voice in my head is asking whether this is all the innovation the mainstream wants: a set of comforting tropes, dressed up with a little cussing and "urban slang" to pass itself off as shiny and new, while still hewing predictably to genre norms.

That Oscar Wao fails to live up to overblown hype is hardly Díaz's fault. He didn't write the stuff! There's another issue with the narrative voice, though, which is that it should technically be "narrative voices," and yet it is not. The narrative is a slow reveal: it first appears to be third-person, but we gradually realize it is actually first-person, primarily from the perspective of a sometime-boyfriend of Oscar's loving sister Lola. However, certain chapters are narrated first-person from Lola's perspective, and the voice in those chapters sounds largely identical to that in her boyfriend's sections. To wit:

It was like the stupidest thing I ever did. [...] I got a job selling french fries on the boardwalk, and between the hot oil and the cat piss I couldn't smell anything else. On my days off I would drink with Aldo, or I would sit on the sand dressed in all black and try to write in my journal, which I was sure would form the foundation for a utopian society after we blew ourselves into radioactive kibble. Sometimes other boys would walk up to me and would throw lines at me like, Who fuckin' died? What's with your hair? They would sit down next to me in the sand. You a good-looking girl, you should be in a bikini. Why, so you can rape me? Jesus Christ, one of them said, jumping to his feet, what the hell is wrong with you?

Although I admired Oscar Wao for navigating a middle path between the everyman approach of some immigrant fiction (Anzia Yezierska's The Bread Givers, for example) and the quirk-fests of books like Middlesex, it did occur to me that the voice itself may play the everyman role here; that Díaz may be creating a "Dominican voice" that, logically enough, is shared by many of his Dominican characters. (Tellingly, Oscar, who does not speak like this, is often taunted by people who don't believe he's really Dominican.) Even so, it seems like an odd decision: laying so much emphasis on a memorable voice, only to dilute that voice by giving it to multiple characters.

And I suppose that's the essence of my disappointment with Oscar Wao: dilution. Dilution of a narrative voice among too many characters. Dilution of an engaging, mildly experimental style by an overly familiar story arc. And dilution of a depiction of the world outside the American mainstream—existence in the Dominican ghetto—with endless explanations to the mainstream American reader. Unlike Wole Soyinka in Death and the King's Horseman or Mario Vargas Llosa in Conversation in the Cathedral, unlike even such blatantly journalistic novelists as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn in Cancer Ward, Díaz assumes his reader will not only come to his novel with no knowledge of Dominican history, but will also refuse to do any work to get that knowledge. So that The Brief Wondrous History of Oscar Wao must be both primary text and its own built-in Sparks Notes—it seems to be explaining itself to the mainstream more than it is struggling with its internal conflicts or operating according to its own internal logic, more than it is addressing the Dominican community which it depicts. It's a pet peeve, but I have to admit a preference for books that don't fall all over themselves explaining to me what they are doing but just get on and do it.


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was this month's selection for the Wolves reading group, suggested by the lovely Claire, who I still adore even though I didn't love this book. :-) Please join us the last weekend of next month for Orhan Pamuk's Snow.


  • And a little voice in my head is asking whether this is all the innovation the mainstream wants: a set of comforting tropes, dressed up with a little cussing and "urban slang" to pass itself off as shiny and new, while still hewing predictably to genre norms.

    Sigh. Yes. Well, you know, to be optimistic: it could be so much worse. About what the mainstream wants, I mean.

    I haven't read this book and guessed it would be just about as you have described it. It's the flaw, I think, of so much contemporary fiction. It's good, but is it that good? Sometimes it's a problem of hype, but even without the hype, you can be left wondering whether it was really worth reading.

    And then it can turn into this nagging inability to give contemporary fiction a chance, even though sometimes it really can be good. This is a huge problem for me.

    I'll be interested to see what the other Wolves think!

    • It's true; it could be (and probably in many cases is) a lot worse in terms of what the mainstream wants. I found almost zero other reviews on LT and GoodReads, for example, that panned it due to gimmickry, soullessness, or lack of narrative differentiation. It was either "This book is fresh, vivid, and different than anything I have ever read," or else "The Spanish was too confusing and I quit after 20 pages." Sigh.

      I know what you mean about reading contemporary fiction. In particular this Modern Family Epic genre really bugs me right now for some reason; I'm not even sure why.

  • Ditto. Except, as usual, your version is more thoughtful and intelligent than mine. I particularly did not like the multiple but not really narrative voices. It seemed lazy to me as did much of the book, in fact.

    • Yeah, what was the point of adding in those three or so chapters narrated by Lola, if her voice wasn't going to be differentiated at all? It was just such an odd decision. I feel like it would have been easier and made the book better to simply have those chapters re-written from the POV of the boyfriend; she could easily have told him everything he needed to know during the time they were a couple.

      I can see the laziness critique although Díaz obviously worked hard to craft certain aspects of the book; I feel like he just left other aspects dangling.

  • Emily, I feel much the same way you do and the same way Nicole suspects she would although I pretty much enjoyed the footnotes for the most part (my own geekly concession to the in-crowd). I guess I found it "entertaining" overall but lacking in the many ways you point out. Wasn't sure that Díaz was convincing in some way and for sure the sameness of the narrative voices played a part in that. Oh, well.

    • I'm honestly not sure what my damage is about footnotes. I just really don't find them intriguing or original or amusing, even though I'm normally on board for semi-cute experimental stuff like that. It's a big reason I haven't investigated David Foster Wallace.

      And as I said over at your place, I think you hit the nail on the head with Díaz being somehow unconvincing...or somehow insincere. I felt I was being shilled to more than sharing in the collective creation of the novel.

  • "Dilution" summed it very well. The blurbs in my edition are celebrating the book's freshness and energy. But they wear off eventually.

  • Oh no! Modern Family Epic is a genre that appeals to me more than you, but I can't stand multiple narrators who all sound the same. I have this on my shelves somewhere, but it sounds like I won't be getting to it any time soon.

    • I know, I actually thought of you while reading this, Eva. The multiple-narrators-that-sound-the-same problem is especially frustrating here because there is no compelling reason for the few chapters that are narrated from Lola's POV, and I have to wonder why Díaz even bothered (hence my "Dominican voice" theory). Sorry to burst your bubble on this one! :-P

  • "It's good, but is it that good?"

    That's just it, Nicole! And Emily said the rest so well, I am wondering if I need write tomorrow. "Dilution." The implied "otherness" that the footnotes speak to and the thought that a no holds barred approach to Dominican/American life equates to fresh. Stripped of these, it still boasts the kind of uniform blandness that I usually find in the modern family epic. Formulaic blandness. But I did find it funny in quite a few parts. And I typically have no problem with footnotes esp. DFW's. Kept thinking that Oscar could have been a book blogger. But that is kind of mean, isn't it? :)

    • The implied "otherness" that the footnotes speak to

      Yes, the implied otherness (and just the implication that the reader will necessarily be a contemporary mainstream American) were probably the biggest turnoffs for me. Like the footnote where the narrator says something like "Oh, you didn't know the US invaded the DM twice in the 20th century? Don't worry, your kids won't know about the Iraq invasion either." Which, at first I laughed uncomfortably (the predictable reaction), and then I was like, Wait, what about a non-US reader here? Why would, for example, a Dutch or a Thai person even be expected to know about US invasions of this or that country? And what about a reader of my (hypothetical) kids' generation reading this in 15 years or so? It just implies that the author himself envisions the book as having limited appeal and a limited shelf life - a kind of planned literary obsolescence that rubbed me the wrong way.

      • Thank you for that, Emily. It happens quite often that books use these assumptions. And sometimes, I'm not that annoyed. I can see how a book might be written with a certain country as its audience in mind (I'm sure that happens a lot when Dutch lit is translated to English - or maybe we do not mind as much when that happens because it is easier to assume that Dutch lit isn't aimed at an international audience?) Sorry, that thought just took me in a completely different direction. But yes, it is annoying when knowledge is either assumed because of the intended audience, but it is much much worse when the authors feel the need to "explain" things because he expects his audience wouldn't understand. And that comment about the Iraq war, it sounds a little patronizing, to be honest.

        • I haven't read that much Dutch lit, Iris, but in general I've had good luck with Northern European authors (I'm thinking Norwegian and Icelandic in particular) just getting on with what they're trying to do without feeling the simultaneous need to offer a crash-course in the history of the country. Regardless of country, I would rather read something that assumes a basic level of knowledge in order to take that basic history in an interesting direction, and have to look up what the author's talking about (which I did for Vargas Llosa's Conversation in the Cathedral and parts of Bolaño's 2666) than have the author assuming I'm an ignoramus - even if I am! ;-) There ARE obviously ways to integrate historical elements smoothly and without being condescending, but as you say, that Iraq footnote is not among them.

  • Hmm... I'm glad to read your thoughts on this so I can dial down my expectations if I ever do read it. I do like the modern family epic more than you do (although I can't for the life of me think of one that I've loved), and I'm in thrall to the footnote fad. Plus, to be honest, I'm among those readers who does need an education in Dominican history before jumping into something that assumes I know the background. (Not that I mind doing a little work; I went to Wikipedia a lot when reading White Woman on a Green Bicycle because I wanted to understand the context better, but I was glad the book included enough information for me to know what my questions were!)

    I do know what you mean about books being hyped as fresh and new when they're just decent examples of what's hot right now. And yes, I'd rather a novel just get on with doing some clever things, instead of pointing out its own cleverness at every turn.

    • Teresa, the book is a quick read and I think if you went into it with appropriate expectations it could be quite enjoyable. I mean, I even enjoyed it in many parts, despite my reservations. And if you like footnotes in your fiction (I know many folks do these days!), these are indeed an amusing way to learn about Dominican history.

      Re: Modern Family Epics, I should in all fairness say there are a few I love. I did full-on adore Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh. And I would have loved Tim Winton's Cloud Street had it not been for the magical realism. So I will continue to read them occasionally, despite my grumpiness. :-)

  • I think I liked it better than you did. Except for the footnotes.

    • Haha, glad to know someone else has reservations about the footnotes, Amy. And I can understand many people liking it better than I did; the Modern Family Epic genre has me really cranky right now for some reason.

  • >>>(It's true: am not on board with the postmodern footnote-o-philia that David Foster Wallace seems to have laid on the literary scene.)

    THIS. THIS. I so agree with you. I love footnotes when they are real footnotes, like footnotes you actually need, in scholarly books, and there are occasions on which I like them (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell mainly), but overall, I think they're terrible and I can't be bothered with them at all.

    • OMG, I'm SO GLAD someone else feels as I do on this! The cutesy overuse of footnotes seems to garner nothing but delight in the popular scene right now and I cannot stand it. Especially as a trend. I mean, doing it once as an experiment? OK. Aping the original experiment on a regular basis as par-for-the-course writing? ARGHRGHGH. Thanks for the validation, lady. ;-)

  • I love footnotes! Especially when they are silly like Terry Pratchett's in his Discworld books. What if you toss out the book and just keep the footnotes? Maybe then it would be vivid and fresh ;)

    • Well, my friend, you are most definitely not alone in that love of footnotes. If you took them out of this book they would form an amusing pamphlet on 20th century Dominican history - maybe they should hand it out at tourist offices, etc. :-)

  • I'm with Stefanie on the footnotes, as long as they are done well (done in a way I like, I mean), but I can't say I've read a book that uses them badly. Not that many use them at all. I loved Nicholson Baker's use of them in The Mezzanine (but does that mean you won't want to read that book now??). I'm curious about your other reasons for not reading Infinite Jest. I'm kind of sad that you aren't excited about reading that book -- it's playfully experimental! What's not to like? Sorry, starting to proselytize here :)

    • Haha, you would not be the first on the Infinite Jest proselytism front! My other reasons for avoiding it are more to do with my past; I have a history of trauma around drug/alcohol issues and so usually steer clear of books where addiction is a major theme. (Though, I like Charles Bukowski: go figure!) So, nothing that reflects poorly on DFW or the book itself; I just don't really want to spend 1000+ pages with recovering addicts.

      Re: the footnote issue, if Mezzanine features them I'll probably start with The Anthologist, and see if Baker's prose hooks me in a big way. If it does I can brave the dreaded footnotes. I should clarify that what REALLY bothers me is not their mere presence but when they're (over)used in a way that strikes me as precious or cutesy. Of course this is all subjective, so I can't necessarily predict which applications will bother me and which won't. Like Jesse Helms, I knows it when I sees it. :-) [Also, I hope this is the ONLY context in which I would ever compare myself to Jesse Helms.]

  • Got it. Yeah, probably not the book for you. (Oh, but, the essays! The essays! Just kidding....) No footnotes in The Anthologist, so you are safe there :)

  • I loathed footnotes when I was an academic (and had to be dragged, fingernails clawing at the floorboards a la Tom and Jerry to the library when I had to write my own) so to see them appearing in ordinary literature fills my heart with unmitigated horror. Has no one else realised that they are the respository of the dull or tangential information that has no place in the main text but ought, for the sake of pedantry, to be mentioned? Okay, that's me on footnotes, and I won't ever talk about them again. :) This book has never appealed to me and I know I won't read it. I get really tired of hopped-up, jargon filled, 'quirky' narrative voices. I know lots of people love them, and good for them. But I so much prefer my narration elegant and smooth and privileging the story over the manner of its telling. But your review is insightful and very diplomatic, Emily.

    • Ha, oh I'm nothing if not diplomatic. :-)

      I so much prefer my narration elegant and smooth and privileging the story over the manner of its telling.

      I've seen you write this a few other times, and it always makes me stop and think about whether I agree (for myself). I think I'm a bit more enthusiastic about books that privilege style or voice over story—although, you enjoy at least some of Woolf's work, and I think of that being true for her. But in order for me to accept this style-heaviness it has to seem organic and suited to its purpose, not just a thin veneer of hipsterism as this one came off.

      Glad to have another ally in the anti-footnote cause! :-)

  • What nicole said resonated with me -- I have a serious problem giving contemporary fiction a chance. I just assume it's not going to be that good, even when it might be. How can you tell?

    Thanks for the wonderful review. You certainly summed up how I felt about Middlesex.

    • I used to avoid contemporary fiction completely, but then someone asked me, "What if you were living in 1925 and Mrs. Dalloway were a new release? You might miss it." Which is a good point. There are some contemporary books that have changed my life, but I also get what you & Nicole are saying - somehow it can be harder to commit to them.

      • Oh, but then you could read it ten or twenty years later, when it had the benefit of a little flavor! It's not as if Mrs. Dalloway disappeared by 1926.

        • True, but Woolf herself would be dead 15 years later. And I must admit that the idea of reading the book during her lifetime, with the fangirl knowledge that it would have been possible, however unlikely, to bump into her in the street, is pretty compelling to me. Also, reading it during the heyday of modernism, before her 1930s detractors started painting her as the elitist anti-commoner, and her suicide colored all the post-war criticism of her work. Before the "delicate lady suicide" reputation got started. That would have been pretty cool. :-)

          'Course, it was also cool to read it for the first time in 2000. It's cool no matter when you read it!

  • I usually love multi-generational immigrant narratives and the like, but I didn't like this book at all. Everything you say about Oscar's "voice" resonates with me. Also, I hated so much that I was supposed to care about Oscar's angsty lack of love life when he insisted on pursuing solely women with whom he had nothing in common, then hating them because they are not interested and oh, by "pursuing" them I mean just daydreaming about them and getting angry that they can't read his mind. EW. Only a small part of the story, I know, but had to throw that out there. It got to me.

    • Haha, as well it might! Yeah, as the friend of several happily-partnered fat folks with quirky/dorky interests, I have to take issue with Oscar's fated-to-a-life-of-misery attitude as well. I mean, I guess that's why it was a portrait of depression. And of life in the sexist Dominican subculture. Still, it's not like he seriously considers dating fat Olga down the street, is it?

  • This book left me with an overwhelmingly "Eh...." feeling and seemed to confirm for me without even trying all the reasons I haven't been liking contemporary fiction lately. Too cute, too self-aware. I agree with your whole review (great stuff once again Emily - all I could summon up was a complaint over the excessive use of LOTR jargon...). I'm glad you pointed out how "made" or even "artificial" the so called fresh and compelling narrative voice felt...

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography