By TESSA WANG
Meet Oscar: A morbidly obese ghetto nerd who hails from Santo Domingo, can’t get laid, worships anime, cannot get laid, speaks fluent Elvish, cannot get laid, and aspires to become the Dominican Tolkien. (Did I mention he cannot get laid?) In Díaz’s second novel, we follow Oscar’s brief, not-so-wondrous life as he develops from miserable nerdy kid to miserable nerdy adult. We also hear the stories of Oscar’s relatives: his feisty mother Belicia, his doomed grandfather Abelard, and his rebellious, but caring, older sister Lola. A common theme running through all these narratives is the fuku, the Curse and the Doom of the New World, which arrived on the shores of Santo Domingo with the conquistadores and has been responsible for countless calamities since.
The fuku is actually a good transition into the “pro” section of this review, because it epitomizes Díaz’s remarkable ability to blend the personal with the political. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is as much a portrait of Santo Domingo as it is a portrait of Oscar and his family. Hilarious, scrupulously detailed footnotes are sprinkled throughout the text, rendering Trujillo-era Santo Domingo in the language of a true nerd. (Ex: El Jefe as Sauron and his right-hand man as the Witch-King of Angmar). The sections on Abelard were especially notable for bringing history to life, so that I found myself simultaneously mourning the suffering of a man and a nation.
Another great strength of this novel is the language. Díaz writes in a colorful blend of Spanglish slang and sci-fi allusions you will not encounter anywhere else, although some reviewers have pointed out that the frequent lapses into Spanish can present a challenge without at least a basic knowledge of that language.
As for the weaknesses, the book’s fast-paced plot at times gave the impression of trying to outdo its own drama. By that I mean, there are no mild or understated occurrences in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Each beating is the beating to end all beatings; each love is the most profound love one has ever experienced on this earth. If we are feeling merciful, we can chock this up to the narrator’s own infatuation with fantasy and sci-fi—genres which often operate at levels of Ultimate Good and Ultimate Evil—but it still became difficult to swallow crisis after enormous crisis. If you could not tell by my opening, there is also an overwhelming emphasis placed on Oscar losing his virginity, which likewise became tiresome after 300 pages.
Overall, the strengths in this book compensated for the few minor flaws. Díaz has crafted a real masterpiece, as memorable for its humor and compassion as its unflinching portrayal of tragedy.