The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Díaz

I vaguely remember when this book came out. It was incredibly popular, so much so that I was very skeptical of the friend who, having to read it for a university class, came to hate it. This friend, by no means a stupid person, gave me a description of the novel that suggests to me that he understood it very well. He also told me what his main complaint about the book was, and that complaint is exactly the kind of thing that I wouldn’t agree with. He was particularly angered by the book’s frequent code-switching, and wanted to know why the author couldn’t pick a damn language and stick with it. On the other hand, I am a big fan of both polyglotism and cultural plurality, and so I didn’t envision that to be a problem for me. Hell, it might even be a virtue.

Despite the fact that the conversation about this book happened more than a decade ago, it was fresh on my mind when I picked this book up. Somehow, suspecting my friend was wrong about this book (knowing full well not only what we disagree on, but how we disagree), I just assumed that I was really going to enjoy this book.

I was wrong. I fucking hated it. I still think my friend’s reasons for disliking it were wrong, but this book just had too few virtues to it. While I was reading it, I constantly found myself looking at the gold sticker on its cover (proudly proclaiming “WINNER of the PULITZER PRIZE”) and thinking to myself “How?”

The friend of mine was definitely wrong. The book’s code switching is something of its virtue. But I recognize to that this might be something that I enjoy in a unique position. I don’t speak Spanish, but I can easily get the gist of most things by being a native Italian speaker. Here is a brief example, where words in bold are Spanish ones I understood. (My apologies to all Spanish speakers, but for expediency’s sake I am omitting accents).

Coje that fea y meteselo!

That’s pretty easy then. And the context around it makes it even easier. I don’t really think anyone would have had a problem with it. Here is another.

Oye, pariguayo y que paso con esa esposa tuya? Gordo, no medigas que tu tudavia tienes hambre?

This one has a lot of words I recognize too, but those first three are actually pretty meaningless to me. Nothing in the rather large paragraph above clears the meaning up. But the second example was a breaking point for my anglophone symathies. Because it really wasn’t explained in the context. And suddenly, the reading becomes chore like. What you don’t want in a reading experience is your reader constantly distracted. Your reading experience is in no way improved οταν ξεχνασω να σου λεω κατι στα Ελληνικα.

Does that prove my point a little bit? Here is one more example.

We stopped serving pendejada last week.

Well, that’s just one little word! It can’t make that big a difference, can it? This might depend on how you see writing. Consider the context:

Do you want anything else?

Only that you would return to school, mi’ja.

Sorry. Beli picked up her taza and wiped the table in one perfunctory motion. We stopped serving pendejada last week.

From that line alone we a monolingual English speaker see the daughter’s snark towards her mother. But they won’t also see her willingness to be vulgar. Do you think that is important information to convey? Of course, in a novel of this length that will ultimately get recommunicated. But I think there is a breaking point.

Were you curious as to why it was that in all the examples above there was some kind of vulgarity? Well, that’s just the story Díaz elected to tell. You can call it the nature of the beast. I don’t shy away from vulgarity, so it wasn’t a problem for me. But if it is something that bothers you, particularly that first quote, then back quickly away from this book. I would be completely lying if I said that this was the Story of Oscar Wao. I don’t believe that for one second. Oscar Wao’s story is a frame to what the writer really wanted to write about – the government of the Domenican republic under Rafael Trujillo. Had he written that, I may, I might have cared, But there were two frames first. The writer introduces us to Oscar, then Oscar’s sister, then Oscar’s mother, and the the Trujillo regime via Oscar’s mother. He got me to care, just barely, about Oscar. Then he switched to a section about Oscar’s sister, which was the most engrossing. A few pages into the section about the childhood of Oscar’s mother and I started wondering when we would ever get back to Oscar. 100 pages later, and I was finding it very hard to care. What did any of this have to do with this Oscar character? It was truly bizarre. The story of Oscar Wao, briefly put, is the story of fat ugly kid who can’t get laid. I too was once a fat ugly kid who couldn’t get laid, but I have the understanding to know that those moments of my life would never once make for good reading. Not ever. But once we got into the Mother’s story, I was mostly just hoping it could go back to the story. Thirsty people, as the kids these days would say, never make for good reading.

Some people say this novel has magical realism in it. I for the life of me could not find it. Something about a fuku curse affecting the family? There was no curse. Just a lof of stupidity. But that just might be my reading this as a skeptic.

The novel was also burdened with one of the most obnoxious narrators imaginable. The author handles him rather poorly to begin with. For most of the novel we have no idea who he is, we merely know that, from the mocking tone of his narrating, he has a disdain for Oscar. But the author breaks this as the novel goes on, as it ceases to work in the other frames of the story. Somewhere in the section about the childhood of Oscar’s mother someone is ‘hurt bad’ and the following is written right after:

Now, it is not the fault of the author that the publishers picked a font that makes this hard to read. I am assuming it says ‘4d10’, as in ‘4 ten-sided dice’, like damage would be done in a game of dungeons of dragons. But what does that have to do with Oscar’s mother? This is her section of the book. Why are you mocking Oscar here? How does this work? Or perhaps it was peppered in here to give the book some kind of legitimacy of nerd cred? I have no idea. It just gave me a lot of confusion. It was just as confusing as when, just before another section in the story’s real narrative about Trujillo, we get this tone setter.

(Cue the theremin, please)

But there was one moment that just got me to lose all patience whatsoever.

The Gangster had told Beli many things in the course of their relationship, but there was one important item he’d failed to reveal. That he was married.

I’m sure you all guessed that. I mean, he was dominicano, after all.

Ok buddy. How about you fuck all the way off. Some of us don’t subscribe to your racism. Hell, some of us aren’t even familiar with it all. Having a simple minded narrator doesn’t exactly make the book easier to read.

I know a laundry list of complaints doesn’t make for a great review, but the problem here was that what merits the book had was just buried in all this. And somehow it got a Pulitzer.


Some bright readers are probably looking at that second example and asking themselves why it was that I could understand the ‘y’ in the first example but not the second. I could give a much lengthier explanation, but I don’t want to weigh down an already lengthy review. To put it briefly, in the first example I have a reasonably good guess as to what that grammatical particle is doing; it was conjoining an imperative ‘coje’ with the second imperative ‘meteselo’. In the second example I have no idea what the word is doing. Welcome to grammar 101.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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