Book Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

No matter what one struggles with — be it drug addiction, lack of social skills, obesity, stupidity — one always seeks to remove the blame from oneself. People always find scapegoats for their ailments, such as genes, parents or family curses. The last excuse is the focus of Junot Diaz’s novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Oscar de Leon, the protagonist, is an overweight “GhettoNerd.” He is a social outcast, and he finds solace in reading and writing science-fiction and fantasy novels. De Leon is the grandson of Abelard Luis Cabral, who was a former surgeon during the time of dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. Cabral made the fatal mistake of crossing Molina, who puts a “fuku” curse upon him. This curse then travels through Cabral’s family, passing from generation to generation. Many of the characters in De Leon’s family each receive a few chapters devoted to their stories. His sister Lola rebels against their mother and suffers social disgrace because she is the only “punked-out chica” in her high school. Their mother, while once a formidable nymphette (even managing to catch the eye of one of Trujillo’s henchmen), is now a single mother with breast cancer. As each chapter unfolds, the reader sees similar themes that run through each family member’s experiences, linking them all together into a cohesive unit. Each character has a specific, personal mountain to climb. Whether it is getting laid, becoming socially acceptable, seeking love or protecting his daughter, the issues they deal with are all personal and accessible for the reader. The novel plays off of the reader’s commiseration with De Leon and his family. I found it hard to sympathize with De Leon. Although he is nerdy and extremely overweight, he never makes any attempt to change. He desperately wants to, but he cannot muster the confidence or the willpower. I do not think badly of anyone who chooses not to get in shape or get a girlfriend — if he or she can provide a rationale for his or her decisions — but De Leon has a desire to change himself and vows that he will. He simply never follows through. It is extremely difficult to respect a person who wants to change his or her life and has the means to do so, yet does not. The book begs the question, “Why does Oscar stay the same?” The answer is in the curse that his grandfather brought upon the family. De Leon blames all of his shortcomings on the fuku curse he has been told about since his childhood. In his mind, the curse is the source of his problems and the reason he cannot lose weight, make friends or get a girlfriend. He never considers the possibility that the fault is his own. By neglecting to acknowledge his responsibility, he gives up all control of his life — he simply waits for external sources to change it for him. This attitude is applicable to every member of De Leon’s family. Like in all of Diaz’s works, the narrator maintains a snarky voice reminiscent of a conversation one would hear walking down the street in Boston. This down-to-earth tone gives the novel a quality of fluency that I would argue rivals “Catcher in the Rye.” The themes and narrative tone combine to make the novel a hybrid of cyberpunk and a classic coming-of-age story. The book is accessible and intriguing, so much so that I stayed up until 2:30 A.M. last night reading it. He also made frequent allusions to works of science fiction and fantasy such as “Lord of the Rings,” “Watchmen” and even “Day of the Triffids” that Diaz seamlessly blended into the narration. The only problem I had with the novel was the way it tended to reiterate themes. Diaz clearly used this literary device to create cohesion between the characters, but it becomes repetitive and tedious. All things considered, the book deserves a thorough read as well as the multiple awards it has received. It provides a harsh, yet tender, reality. While it maintains a light-hearted air, the plot is heart-wrenching. But perhaps Diaz himself described it best: “This Ain’t No &%#$ing Comic Book!” Grade: 5 Junot Diaz will speak at next Wednesday’s All-School Meeting.