Posted by: Gregg | January 12, 2008

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz

Dizzying, dazzling, and intoxicating, this wonderfully inventive book might just be one of the best reads of the year.

And I’m not going to recommend it to you.

Let me explain. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is a multi-generational tale about a Dominican Republic family that’s afflicted with curse – or fuku, as it’s called in the DR – that culminates in the Oscar of the title, a sad, overweight, hopelessly romantic geek who yearns to be the next J.R.R. Tolkien in a culture full of players and playboys. (The family name is de Leon – Oscar’s classmates tease him with the name “Oscar Wao”, a corruption of “Oscar Wilde.”) The narrative bounces back and forth from Oscar to his sister, his mother, and his grandfather, as the history of the de Leon family is explained between the Dominican Republic and New Jersey. Intertwined with the history is the island dictator Rafael Trujillo, who hovers over the story like Sauron, his bloody and painful reign explained in exhaustive footnotes.

The story is told from the point of view of a classmate of Oscar’s, and is both emotionally deep and screamingly funny. Oscar Wao is the very pinnacle of geek lit – every paragraph is littered with references from old movies to comic books to pulp fiction to fantasy novels to 1980’s Saturday morning cartoons; if you don’t know who Uatu the Watcher is, or know what having an 18 in charisma is, or what the Zentraedi are, or what happens when something gets hit with Darkseid’s Omega Beams, then you’ll be helplessly lost within just a few pages. Added to this is Diaz’s habit of slipping his narrative into Spanish, which means this book is best read with both a Spanish-English dictionary and Wikipedia at the ready.

For those who are looking for a leisurely book, something disposable to read and forget over a weekend, this ain’t the book for you. But if you’re well-versed in your geek-fu and looking for the literary equivalent of a gourmet meal you’ll remember for a long time, then, man, are you in for an experience.


  1. Oh boy, am I gonna have to read this!

  2. No wonder my hubby was utterly lost in the book. He could not read it and I felt bad for suggesting it. I so understand why you said, “And I’m not going to recommend it to you.” ;D

  3. This was a strange one to review – I wanted to express my amazement at the thing but at the same time pass along my view that it isn’t a book for everyone. To be honest, I’m shocked that it’s gotten as many awards as it has.

  4. Well, I’m down with the 18 for charisma, but lost on pretty much everything else, and frankly, it sounds exhausting. Think I’ll leave it alone. Thanks for the heads up!

  5. I just did a review of this myself, and while I have my geeky tendencies, I too didn’t enjoy the overall flow of the book. Maybe we’re the only two who haven’t fallen haphazardly into all the hype.

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