The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: Overview

51wOaYkRSfL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve got several bones to pick with Mr. Junot Diaz about the title of his 2008 Pulitzer winner.

1. A spoiler in the title? Really?

2. I’m not sure “wondrous” is the word I’d use. All things considered, “cursed” is more appropriate.

3. You need a comma. But more about that (and how I’m wrong while being technically right) in a bit.

Tl;dr Synopsis


Writing Style

No, just kidding. I’ll actually give you a Tl:dr.

Tl;dr Synopsis

This book is about much more than Oscar De Leon, though it begins with him and ends with him. Each chapter is a vignette that serves as a puzzle piece. Through it, the story of the De Leon family and their horrifying multigenerational battle with the Fuku come together.

The Fuku was a curse believed to be a brought upon the Dominican Republic by Trujillo, a fearsome (and historically real) dictator in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. And while the author is quick to point out when Dominicans are being superstitious, it’s hard to believe Oscar’s family is just dealing with a few decades of bad luck.

You don’t learn of the initial source-Fuku (“Poor Abelard,” indeed) until a good way into the book, but you’re so distracted by all the stories in between that it doesn’t matter. There’s the story of obese, awkward Oscar and the roommate who wants to help him get it together. There’s the story of Beli, who is easy to hate until you realize she’s perhaps the biggest victim of all. And then there’s Lola, who we find out at the end is the reason the book is written. It’s the narrator’s love for her that causes him to try to counteract the curse by writing down the De Leon story.

Writing Style

Diaz is somewhat difficult to read, though perhaps that’s a failing of mine. If you’ve ever tried to read a Zora Neale Hurston book and plow through the literary attempts to record speech patterns of southern black folks, you’ll have an idea of the difficulty I’m talking about. First, there’s tons of jargon (or, in this case, Spanish). Second, there’s very little concern for grammar or propriety. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is filled with fragments, comma splices, improper capitalization, and speech not offset by quotation marks. That’s why I said maybe it’s a failing of mine. That’s kind of the stuff I focus on for work, and it’s my fault if I can’t look past it. I mean, I looked at the title and didn’t process much except, “huh, wonder who let that missing comma slip by.” If I were Diaz’s editor, I would have spent a year on this book. But I think I may be in the wrong for that. There’s certainly places where his first-draft-feeling book could have benefited from some editing for the sake of clarity. But I have to realize some editor somewhere made a choice to consider these things part of Diaz’s (or the narrator’s, anyway) voice. At times like these, I wonder how to not let myself as a person get in the way of me blogging for others’ sake.

Anyway, I’d sum up the writing style as casual. There’s a lot of strong language and personality in the writing. Those who liked The Catcher in the Rye in high school will probably also like this book. The voices are similar, though the story is less narrator-centered. (And this story is much better than bratty Caulfield’s.) However, if the thing you liked about The Catcher in the Rye was that it’s short, well, this isn’t for you–Oscar is pretty epic.

Also, be prepared to have you current knowledge of Spanish be taken to the next level. You will be able to, ahem, express yourself more fully once you’re done with this one.


The narrator is the best character, especially when you find out who he is. He’s got a distinct voice, but it doesn’t take you out of the story when he tells you what other characters are thinking and feeling. I think it’s to be understood that the narrator is taking a stab at what they’re going through, but Diaz does a good job of never making you feel confused about perspective. There aren’t constant reminders that your narrator is unreliable, and he so seldom inserts himself into the plot that it’s pretty easy to get lost in the story without being jarred out of it.

Oscar is a morose perpetual virgin who loves games and comic books and science fiction. He is an irredeemable dork, and not in the ironic, hipster way. His life is a major part of the book, but the book is about many others, as well. Lola is his headstrong, beautiful sister who’s there for Oscar whenever she’s needed. Beli is his wretch of a mother, so commanding and so scarred, both literally and psychologically. Yunior is his roommate, who tries and fails to encourage Oscar to be healthy and/or cool. When he fails, Yunior writes him off for as long as he can, but there’s something about Oscar won’t let Yunior’s forget about him. There’s a strong-willed grandmother, a great uncle who struggles to keep his family from the reach of Trujillo, and lots more. They are easy to read about, and they’re believable, though I don’t really find anyone remarkable. Maybe that’s a good thing. We do see how the different characters evolve, but this book is story-driven, not character driven,


I really loved the chapter about Oscar and his roommate. I also really loved the ending. It was clear that the book was building to something with Oscar, and when it happened, it seemed right. It made sense. By the way, “it” is him dying. Normally I’d feel bad about telling you that, but, again, the title is a spoiler.

At the time, I was a little annoyed when it kept going after the closure we got with Oscar. it felt a bit like that last Lord of the Rings movie, just fading from one closing scene to the next, ad-seeming-infinitum. But now that I’ve gotten to the very end, I know exactly why it was there. It’s awesome.

Who Should Read this Book

I think that if you like historical fiction, interesting cultural pieces, or, again, The Catcher in the Rye, you will dig this book. It was a good story, and many times, it was a page-turner. It was also quite raw. Oscar is whatever the polar opposite of poetry is. If you like elegant prose or you’re squeamish about vulgarity, this probably isn’t your jam.

For What It’s Worth (A.K.A. My Opinion)

I can see why this won the prize. It’s a fascinating glimpse into Dominican culture and some of the awful things that happened there. In a lot of ways, this book deals with human rights violations, and I appreciate the light that it sheds. Junot Diaz is in the news a lot lately after criticizing the actions of Dominican Republic’s government, with the blowback of being stripped of awards back home. He’s an active advocate for the disenfranchised, and that shows in Oscar.

While I’m not squeamish (see above) or addicted to Victorian-style pomp and circumstance in language (see also above), this wasn’t my favorite. I respect it; I even like it. But it didn’t capture me quite the way other books have. I probably wouldn’t read something of Diaz’s again unless it was strongly recommended to me. I have too many other possible reads and only one life in which to read them. But this will be some people’s favorite book, and I understand why. To each his/her own.

Creating Character Depth Through Confounding

The other day, I had lunch with a colleague, and he described an idea. He wanted to write a book with his wife, but with a fun twist. He would write one chapter, his wife would write the next, and so on, back and forth. Neither would get to see what the other wrote until it was his/her turn to take over the book.

Beautiful sugar skull woman illustration. Day of dead vector illustration.That got us talking about the genre of the progressive novel. If you haven’t heard of things like round robin writing and the exquisite corpse (see left for what I picture when I say that), well, they’re essentially vehicles for people to collaborate on a story or work of art.

Check them out. They’re fun, and as I’m seeing, they can be useful projects to use as inspiration in solo writing later. But first, creative writing class.

Confound It!

Our lunch conversation led to me remember one of my creative writing workshops. This one was called “Confound It!” or something like that. I might just be making that up. Whatever. If I am, I’m doing a good job because it sounds cool.

It was a collaborative writing exercise in which everyone would write a paragraph, pair up with someone, and switch papers. You would read your partner’s paragraph and write their next one. Except you weren’t supposed to be nice. Your goal was to confound your partner. You were to give them a paragraph that utterly changed the course of what they were writing and forced them to try to recover from whatever disasters you created.

So in “Confound It!,” paragraph one goes like this:

A young man sits and has a heart-to-heart with his estranged, dying father. They hash out old demons from the young man’s childhood. The son finally had the courage to tell his father he had felt abandoned by the old man his whole life.

Paragraph two goes like this:

Not far from the hospital, the abominable snowman, like the young man, was tired of a lifetime of rejection. So, using methods not described in this paragraph, he procured a cache of enriched uranium, and now we’re in the midst of a nuclear winter only he–and for some unspecified scientific reason, also flamingos–could survive.

Paragraph three goes like this:

Dude, come on.

Or maybe it goes like this:

Even the flamingos rejected the abominable snowman, and he learned that extracting revenge through violence was never going to fix the pain he felt inside. The young man at least died, albeit in a mushroom cloud, with a clear conscious after attempting to reconcile through conversation.

This is also kind of the plot of Frankenstein. See, I’m not a very good creative writer even when I’m plagiarizing.

But Confounding Yourself…

The last few Pulitzer-journey books that have graced my bedside table have reminded me of this exercise. These authors’ technique isn’t collaborative in nature, though. Thier goal seems to be to confound themselves. They carefully set up character development in one chapter and then completely undo their work in the next. But this isn’t bad writing. Or rather, it’s bad writing like a fox. (I’m not very good with simile, either.)

The first book that reveals this technique is Olive Kitteridge. In chapter one, we see a harpy wife nagging her sweet, mild mannered husband, berating him in front of guests and drowning him in a sea of “I cook for you, I clean for you, and what thanks do I get?” Olive is extremely unlikeable in this chapter. But in the very next chapter, author Strout undoes all that hard character work–or rather, she complicates it. Olive is a strong woman who knows exactly when people are in trouble. There’s a man in a truck who’s contemplating suicide, and Olive sees him and invites herself into the car. Even though he’s largely silent, she perceives what’s going on. What’s more, she deals with it in just the right way. She’s solemn and strong and doesn’t sugarcoat things. There are few words exchanged, but her curt observations about the world and his family were exactly what he needed to hear to feel less alone. We see that Olive has a soul, and it’s a soul capable of reaching out to others in a deep way. We can also sense that Olive has scars herself.

The author keeps this up. Olive vacillates between being awful and understandable and human and cruel, depending on the chapter. And, the way Strout does it, you don’t feel like it’s that the character isn’t well formed. As I said in my overview on the book, it seems like she’s known every character in the book for years.*

I’m reading the 2008 winner now, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It’s happening here, too. Oscar and Lola’s mother, Beli, is pure evil in the second chapter. She’s abusive and manipulative in ways that turn your stomach. And when Lola understands she’ll never be perfect enough to make her mother’s abuse stop–and, besides, she doesn’t have the energy to try–the house gets dangerously hostile. Lola has to run. Junot Diaz, the author, has clearly made this character the villain of the book.

Just kidding! He doubles back on chapter two’s character work in the very next chapter. There, we meet Beli as a child, and we understand that she’s a broken little orphan, shattered by the world and with the same impulses we saw in her daughter in chapter two–the need to run. In fact, the author uses the unusual technique of calling her “our” Beli, burdening the reader with responsibility for who she becomes, forcing kinship with her in an insidious way.

When I think of what the authors are doing here, it could very easily backfire. The characters could appear inconsistent, confusing, ungraspable. But when handled right, this act of confounding themselves helps authors use each twist to turn the screw deeper into the wall, anchoring the character as an individual with complexities that reflect real humans. It’s a fascinating technique.


*Guys. Guys. I thought of the best pickup line for Elizabeth Strout. I forgot to put it in my overview post.

Setting: Bar
Me: Hey girl. Are you Zeus, because your characters spring from your head fully formed
Strout: ~Asks bartender for the check, excuses herself~

I’m not good at pickup lines, either.