The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao principally concerns its title character, his sister Lola, and their mother, although it does also tell the story of their extended family as well as that of its ostensible narrator, Yunior.
Diaz’ novel is that rare find – a work of current fiction that entirely lives up to its hype. The number of successful elements it delivers is simply ridiculous:
Big vivid characters that make a big splash on the page? Check.
Big vivid characters that are also richly imagined, convincing, and affecting? Check.
Multi-generational saga? Check.
Lots of sex but no sex scenes (thank you Junot!)? Check.
Healthy dollops of magical realism? Check.
Locations exotic to the typical American reader of literary fiction: hard scrabble New Jersey and the Dominican Republic? Check.
A narrative voice that is part gangster, part geek, and part grad student? Check.
A whole bunch of fanboy references to comic books, science fiction, and fantasy novels (oh god not again)? Check.
A great deal of untranslated Spanish dialogue, narration, and commentary? Check.
A third-world history lesson — in this case about the hyper-over-super-achieving sadistic Dominican dictator Trujillo and his thirty year reign of terror — much of which is told through jazzy footnotes? Check.
A story focused on the wild, uncompromising, irrational, destructive but all the same soul-sustaining power of love? Check.
A satisfying ending that unites all these elements in an organic whole that meets Nabokov’s definition of art, “beauty plus pity”? Check and check.
G-dd-mn Junot Diaz.
The only criticism of the novel I have is a flaw in the narrator which, as it turns out, isn’t a flaw at all. In the beginning of The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Yunior pushes the comic book/sci-fi/fantasy references so hard that they almost entirely obscure the character of Oscar.
I kept muttering, “I can’t see Oscar, Junot, because all these Lord of the Rings references keep getting in the way.”
But what I realized is that early in the novel, Yunior is a young man who writes like a young man: overly earnest, full of himself, self-absorbed, and inept. He matures as he ages, and his narration matures too, until it is much wiser, more self-aware, more observant and empathetic, and more rueful.
Yunior is also one of those (not uncommon) characters who are their author’s alter ego, to the extent that they often share their creator’s omniscience. Yunior describes many things in the novel which are simply impossible for him to know.
Diaz doesn’t give Yunior the excuse of being the fictional author of the novel. Instead, Diaz shimmers in and out of Yunior’s character, which I think gives the novel more depth, because Diaz keeps getting you to fall into the dream of the story, then waking you up from it.
That’s another element I should have put in my list. Well, I’ll check it off now and conclude with this: G-dd-mn Junot Diaz.