The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz Book Review


Junot Diaz first impressed me with his ‘This is How Your Lose Her,’ a small novel about the trials of love and loss. Diaz focuses on the Dominican-American experience, drawing heavily on Dominican belief (like the Fuku curse) and dabbling into Spanish mid-sentence. This novel blew me away with its sad, almost inevitable fate, and reminded me of how okay and not okay it is to by myself.

Oscar Wao, the disillusioned hero of the story, is a fat nerd of a Dominican, and is constantly made fun of for his appearance and attitude. He’s constantly told that he’s not really a Dominican man because he has not slept with a woman yet. The story also dabbles into Oscar’s sister’s life (Lola), his mother Beli (an immigrant from the DR), his grandfather Abelard (whom he had never met), and Lola’s on and off again boyfriend Yunior. In order to understand Oscar and Oscar’s conditions, we must learn the past. We must learn the start of the Fuku (the curse). We must learn the ways in which Oscar’s mother fell in love and could not get out. The ways we all fall without the desire to get up again.

Oscar is prone to falling in love- a lot. He falls in love with women on the street, in classrooms, from a photo on the internet. He falls in love with Ana, his first real love, during high school. Of her he says: ‘The next day he woke up feeling like he’d been unshackled, like he’d been washed clean of his memory, and for a long time he couldn’t remember why he felt this way, and then he said her name.’ Although Lola and the others can see the trouble Oscar is getting into, he plunges onward, fighting incredibly for love “I’ve waited forever to be in love. It’s like I swallowed a piece of heaven.’ Oscar suffers a tremendous heartbreak, and seems to be bound to suffer the same breakage over and over again. Each time he becomes changed, crazed, sad: ‘It’s never the changes we want that change everything.’

Is this the Fuku? That Oscar will fall in love continuously with women who will not/cannot love him back? That each time it will feel more and greater, that each time it ends it will feel more defining?

We learn, in the next segment of the novel, that Beli, Oscar’s mother, was cursed in somewhat the same way. Her story is a sad one: the orphan child of parents murdered by the Trujillo, the adopted daughter to unknown and cruel people, and eventually the object of a dangerous man’s desire. Beli falls into a relationship with a man known as ‘The Gangster’ who dotes on her with a love that is half dangerous and half tempting. ‘But like lovegirls everywhere, she had heard only what she wanted to hear.’ Beli feels a loyalty that does not waiver, even in the midst of the truth: The Gangster is married to none other than the Trujillo’s sister. Even a pregnancy could not change that fact. In a horrific scene, Beli is beaten nearly to death. And in the pain, in the realization of her stupidity, or not stupidity but unparalleled love, Beli discovers a strength that cannot be deterred. “She came to in the ferocious moonlight. a broken girl. Pain everywhere. But alive. She pulled from strength, from hope, from hate, from her invincible heart, each a different piston driving her forward.’ Beli suffers an immense healing process and the loss of her unborn child before escaping to New York City, the betrayal of a lifetime ironically and confusingly mixed up in the love a lifetime. On the plane, Beli meets the future father of Oscar and Lola and laughs when the man attempts conversation with her. ‘Don’t laugh, for your world is about to be changed. Utterly. You laugh because you’ve been ransacked to the limit of your soul, because your lover betrayed you almost unto death. Your laugh because you’ve sworn never to smile again.’ The Fuku. She falls again. And he leaves, too. The Fuku.

Diaz’s choice to have Yunior, a secondary character, narrate what are arguably the most important sections of the novel, is an impeccable choice. Yunior, a popular Dominicano who gets with lots of women, observes Oscar from afar, perplexed, amazed, and disgusted by him. Yunior lives with Oscar, an act to impress Lola, but which quickly morphed into a strange friendship. From Oscar, Yunior learns how false appearances can be, and how satisfying it can be to watch anime on a Friday night rather than chasing women. Yunior’s relationship with Lola is heartbreaking- I’ve never read so many passages about love and the ways in which we back away from the potential of it, scared of the immense light and greatness that ‘the one’ controls. ‘And then we stood there and stared at each other. In a better world, I would have kissed her over the ice trays and that would have been the end of all our troubles. But you know exactly what kind of world we live in. It ain’t no fucking MiddleEarth. I just nodded my head, said see you around Lola, and drove home.’ Oof. How many times have we all done this? Looked the one we love in the eye and lied out of pride and fear? Why must we always do this?

During the time Oscar and Yunior live together, Oscar makes the decision to end his life. He falls from the top of a railroad tower and does not die. Instead he becomes a broken, half-alive thing for awhile. Yunior feels frustration and sadness, the emotions to cover the blame that even his hindsight will not allow him to admit. Lola’s disappointment in Yunior trumps it all. As Oscar heals, Yunior goes back to school and falls away from Lola.

‘I was thinking about the one time I’d seen Lola that year; she’d been reading a book with such concentration I thought she might hurt herself. That was one of those moments that would always be Rutgers for me. Of all the chicks I’d ever run up on, Lola was the one I’d never gotten a handle on. So why did it feel like she was the one who knew me best?’ ‘Why is this the face I can’t seem to forget, even now, after all these years? Tired from working, swollen from lack of sleep, a crazy mixture of ferocity and vulnerability that was and shall ever be Lola.’

Yunior. How in love you are. How much you are denying it. These sentiments are things I’ve felt so many times before with the same person, things I’ve written time and time again but which the words can never get right. I’ll remember two faces for eternity, faces that could have been in my life each and every day but which are not because of their fear and their cowardice. Perhaps there is beauty in the fact that I will always be their Erika, as she will always be Yunior’s Lola.

After Oscar recovers, he travels to the Dominican Republic. Here he falls in love for the third and final time with Ybon, a middle-aged prostitute who has had a past/ongoing relationship with a rough and controlling general. At first, Oscar’s love seems unrequited; the readers cringe as he again allows his heart to be taken over without hope of reciprocation. Oscar does not wince at his loyalty and his undying ability to fall head over heels, however; instead, he tells her, every day. “He’d sit with her and smoke her weed tentatively and not understand why he couldn’t sustain this feeling of love in his heart forever. Oscar considered her the real start of his life.’ Eventually, the general hears of Oscar and gives him a beating so rough and terrifying that he assumes Oscar will leave forever. Instead, however, Oscar escapes his family and flies back to Santa Domingo to be with Ybon for as long as he can. And the two do fall into some kind of love, for a minute of time: ‘But what really got him- it was the little intimacies that he’d never in his whole life anticipated, like combing her hair or getting her underwear off the line or watching her walk naked to the bathroom or the way she would suddenly sit on his lap and put her face into his neck. He couldn’t believe he’d had to wait for this so god damn long. So this is what everybody’s talking about, he wrote. If only I’d known. The beauty! The beauty!’

Diaz ends his novel on this ode to love. It’s discovered in a letter Oscar wrote to Yunior and Lola, found after Oscar’s death (as predicted, the general gave him a beating he could not recover from). But if Oscar Wao knows anything, it is that love, however dumb and all-consuming and treacherous and painful it may be in the end, however short or long the love lasts, it is worth it. It is the only thing worth it. The only thing that intimidates the Fuku.

And as for Yunior and Lola? The two never come back together, at least not totally. They try. But Yunior cheats and one day Lola simply leaves. Destined to love one another from afar, thinking maybe, but knowing never again. ‘Lola’s hair is long now; she’s heavier, but she’s still the ciguapa of my dreams. Always happy to see me, no bad feelings. None at all. Before all hope died I used to have this stupid dream that shit could be saved, that we would be in bed together like the old times, with the fan on, the smoke from our weed drifting above us, and I’d finally try to say the words that could have saved us: _ ___ __. But before I can shape the vowels I wake up. My face is wet, and that’s how you know it’s never going to come true. Never, ever.’

Is it better to go full out for love? To be loyal literally to death in order to finally, without fear or hesitation, in order to correctly love the one you love? Or should we shrink from the possibility, always coming close but never going all the way? Is it all beautiful? Yes. The Beauty, the beauty.


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