The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
This book is such a literary rockstar that we're pretty sure you already know what it's about. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao made a big splash when Riverhead books published it in 2007. It won a bucketload of prizes, including the John Sargent Senior First Novel Prize and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in Fiction.
Considering Wao was Junot Díaz's first novel, it's more accurate to say that itmade a tsunami-size wave, not a splash. Come on. Who wins the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize with their first novel? Junot Díaz does, apparently. And maybe Chuck Norris, if Chuck Norris wrote fiction.
Prior to Wao, Díaz published a collection of short stories called Drown. Some of these stories appeared in top-drawer magazines like The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Drown got its fair share of positive reviews, so Díaz was certainly on the map before he published Wao. But he wasn't yet a literary rockstar.
Though some fans and critics anxiously awaited the novel, few predicted Wao's wild success—especially since it took Díaz a really, really long time to finish the book. In fact, eleven years passed before Díaz finished The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. That's long enough to make any editor or fan squirm.
The novel follows the family of Oscar Wao as they emigrate from the Dominican Republic to Paterson, New Jersey. As Lev Grossman said in Time:
You could call The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao the saga of an immigrant family, but that really wouldn't be fair. It's an immigrant-family saga for people who don't read immigrant-family sagas.
That's because the novel is about much more than Oscar's family relocation to New Jersey. The book explores themes of racial and national identity, while questioning commonly held assumptions about masculinity. It also deals (quite successfully) with the nasty legacy Rafael Trujillo left behind in the Dominican Republic.
And it does all of this while interweaving the traditional genres of nerddom—like sci-fi novels, fantasy comic books, and Japanese anime. Few other novels can mash together multiple cultures, histories, identities, and fantasies as well as Wao. Herman Melville's Moby Dick is the only book we think comes anywhere close.
But before we set you loose on the novel, we'd like to suggest a reading strategy. See, Díaz has all sorts of tricks up his sleeve in Wao. So you may feel overwhelmed by the footnotes, the multiple narrators, or the shifts between English and Spanish.
However, remember that Díaz wants—more than anything—to ask some tough questions about life, immigration, love, and relationships. For example, he wonders, Where is home? And how do we get back there?
So keep the author's earnest truth-seeking, and these central questions, in the forefront of your mind as you toggle between his different voices and languages. If you're feeling confused and uncomfortable, just breathe. And lean into those feelings. In our complicated and diverse 21st century world, these feelings are the new home.
Why Should I Care?
Imagine that you're watching Season Two of your favorite TV show. The show is on every Sunday night at eight o'clock. Usually, you relax, eat some popcorn, and let your brain veg out.
But somehow, watching this show—let's call it The Jesse and Veronica Show—has become very stressful for you. And you know exactly when this anxiety first started.
Stick with us now. In Season One, you felt that you could root for both of the main characters. Jesse, who is from New Jersey, and who has a family of just his parents and two siblings, reminds you of your own family in New Jersey. You identify with Jesse. Heck, you even look like Jesse.
But you also really like the other main character, Ronnie. Whenever you and your immediate family visit your extended family in the Dominican Republic, your family suddenly becomes a lot like Ronnie's family: large beyond belief and very, very loud.
Liking both characters at the same time used to be easy. You were in television heaven. However, everything changed at the beginning of the second season.
Ronnie and Jesse began fighting in Season Two. Each did some pretty low stuff in the early episodes. (Admittedly, each character takes the moral high road in later episodes.) At this point, however, you feel like you have to choose one character or the other—it's one of those situations in television where you simply can't sit on the fence.
If this were only a problem between you and The Jesse and Veronica Show you might be okay. But it's not. Your friends at school want to know your loyalties.
Of course, this presents a problem. Probably because of your mom's Dominican heritage, you often identify with Ronnie. But you live also in New Jersey like Jesse, and you've come to love New Jersey, despite its generally bad rep. (You probably tunderstand where we're going with this by now.)
On Monday mornings, after the episodes air, you actually hide from your friends because they want to know what you think of the latest developments. What are you supposed to say? That you can't decide which character you like? This will not fly.
Then, something totally unexpected and marvelous happens to you. You can't remember how you ended up listening to the radio—maybe you were avoiding The Jesse and Veronica Show?— but you catch an interview with some new author named Junot Díaz on NPR.
This guy Díaz starts talking about his book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which you initially dismiss because the title is way too long. But as you listen to Díaz, you realize that he's actually solving your Jesse and Veronica problem. He keeps talking about what it means to be an American. And he says some very, very smart things.
Being an American, for us, in a large part, is dealing with these multiple Americas....That one can carry inside them both the country of their origin and the country that received them. The idea that has been popularized that one must choose between your home place and the new place is cruel and absurd. You can be two things simultaneously.
You immediately buy his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. You read it in one sitting. Your life makes total sense now. Why would you ever think that you had to choose between Jesse and Veronica? Being an American means being a hyphen, you tell yourself.
You're the little connective punctuation mark between multiple identities. Now that you know this, you can watch The Jesse and Veronica Show in peace. You seek out your friends on Monday morning. You even quote Junot Díaz to them during lunch when they ask if you've made up your mind about Jesse and Veronica.
(They look at you a little funny, but they also look at you with a newfound respect.)
Not only do you understand The Jesse and Veronica Show, you understand yourself and your diverse American culture like you never have before. All this is thanks to Mr. Junot Díaz, and his amazing little book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
How'd you like that analogy? Lengthy, we know. But rewarding, we hope.