Study Guide

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Literature and Writing

By Junot Díaz

Literature and Writing

Act 1, Preface

If the Yanks commit an error in the late innings it's zafa; if somebody brings shells in from the beach it's zafa; if you serve a man parcha [passionfruit] it's zafa. Twenty-four-hour zafa in the hope that the bad luck will not have had time to cohere. Even now as I write these words I wonder if this book ain't a zafa of sorts. My very own counterspell. (1.preface.13)

There are two opposing supernatural forces in this novel: fukú and zafa. A fukú is a heavy-duty curse; a zafa is something like a good luck charm or a counterspell. You say a zafa to protect yourself from a curse. Although writing isn't the major theme of this novel, Díaz privileges it enough to call it a zafa: a powerful counterspell against evil.

Chapter 1

That summer his mother sent him and his sister to Santo Domingo, and this time he didn't fight it like he had in the recent past. It's not like he had much in the States keeping him. He arrived in Baní with a stack of notebooks and a plan to fill them all up. Since he could no longer be a gamemaster he decided to try his hand at being a real writer. The trip turned out to be something of a turning point for him. Instead of discouraging his writing, chasing him out of the house like his mother used to, his abuela [grandmother], Nena Inca, let him be. Allowed him to sit in the back of the house as long as he wanted, didn't insist that he should be "out in the world." (1.1.8.14)

It goes without saying that Oscar's mom doesn't support his interests. Beli is just that kind of mother. She's really traditional; she wonders, Shouldn't Oscar be doing manly things like scoring chicks or playing sports? La Inca, however, seems to be more sympathetic to what Oscar wants.

Chapter 3

What is it with Dictators and Writers, anyway? Since before the infamous Caesar-Ovid war they've had beef. Like the Fantastic Four and Galactus, like the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, like the Teen Titans and Deathstroke, Foreman and Ali, Morrison and Crouch, Sammy and Sergio, they seem destined to be eternally linked in the Halls of Battle. Rushdie claims that tyrants and scribblers are natural antagonists, but I think that's too simple; it lets writers off pretty easy. Dictators, in my opinion, just know competition when they see it. Same with writers. Like, after all, recognizes like. (1.3.6.9)

Díaz says that writers and dictators are actually in competition with each other. Why? Well, when you read a novel, you're totally at the whim of the author. You have to believe what the author tells you, because the author has total control over this world. Same thing with being a citizen under a dictatorial leader. So, of course, dictators would like to restrict what gets written during their regimes; writers can breed dissent, can write alternative versions of history that portray dictators in unfavorable lights. That's what's with dictators and writers.

Chapter 4

Made my little gestures, of course. A meal once a week. Picked up his writings, five books to date, and tried to read some. Wasn't my cup of tea – Drop the phaser, Arthurus Prime!—but even I could tell he had chops. Could write dialogue, crack snappy exposition, keep the narrative moving. Showed him some of my fiction too, all robberies and drug deals and F*** you, Nando, and BLAU! BLAU! BLAU! He gave me four pages of comments for an eight-page story. (1.4.1.28)

Yunior likes to tell us how he gets with hot girls. It's easy to forget that Yunior writes fiction just like Oscar. Granted, Yunior's stories probably sound nothing like Oscar's. As suggested above, Yunior veers toward gritty realism (and away from outer space fantasies). But why would Díaz have both the main male characters write fiction? What kinds of stories of masculinity, nationality, and so on are these two authors competing to tell?

Four days later they took him [Oscar] home. […]. I did manage to call him a couple times to check up on him. Even that was a lot because I kept expecting his mother or sister to tell me that he was gone. But no, he claimed he was "regenerated." No more suicide attempts for him. He was writing a lot, which was always a good sign. I'm going to be the Dominican Tolkien, he said. (1.4.1.166)

Not long after his suicide attempt, Oscar rededicates himself to writing. He declares that he's going to be the "Dominican Tolkien." Being a nerdy Dominican has probably gotten Oscar his fair share of bullying, but you have to admire his ambitions for his writing.

Chapter 6

I know what N****es are going to say. Look, he's writing Suburban Tropical now. A puta [prostitute] and she's not an underage snort-addicted mess? […]. Would it be more believable if I turned Ybón into this other puta I know, Jahyra, a friend and a neighbor in Villa Juana, who still lives in one of those old-style pink wooden houses with the zinc roof? […]

But then I'd be lying. I know I've thrown a lot of fantasy and sci-fi in the mix but this is supposed to be a true account of the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. (2.6.7.1-2.6.7.2)

Does Díaz value the truth over fantasy? We're not sure. All this talk about the truth might be a little misleading. Perhaps Díaz values fantasy and fact equally. Recall his descriptions of Trujillo. He describes Trujillo as 1) a real, historical person and 2) the Evil Lord Sauron. It sounds to us like Díaz mixes the two up into one delicious smoothie, but we'll let you be the judge.

Chapter 7

Twenty-seven days. Wrote on each and every one of them, wrote almost three hundred pages if his letters are to be believed. Almost had it too, he said to me one night on the phone, one of the few calls he made to us. What? I wanted to know. What? (3.7.3.2)

These are Oscar's last twenty-seven days on earth. He knows he's close to death. The capitán has promised him as much. So what does Oscar do? Does he go skydiving or go see a priest or eat and drink himself silly? No. He chases the woman he loves and writes a ton. This shows the importance of writing to Oscar, and to the novel as a whole. Are love and writing Oscar's two tickets to immortality?

Chapter 8

These days I live in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, teach composition and creative writing at Middlesex Community College, and even own a house at the top of Elm Street, not far from the steel mill. […].

[…]. These days I write a lot. From can't see in the morning to can't see at night. Learned that from Oscar. (3.8.5.1-3.8.5.2)

Don't let Yunior fool you. He becomes a dedicated writer just like Oscar. Plus, he teaches at a college. Can you say "professor"? Can you say "tweed jacket"? Can you say "nerd"?

I'll pour her [Lola's daughter] a drink, and the wife will fry up her special pastelitos; I'll ask her about her mother as lightly as I can, and I'll bring out the pictures of the three of us from back in the day, and when it starts getting late I'll take her down to my basement and open the four refrigerators where I store her tio's books, his games, his manuscript, his comic books, his papers—refrigerators the best proof against fire, against earthquake, against anything.

[…].

And maybe, just maybe, if she's as smart and as brave as I'm expecting she'll be, she'll take all we've done and all we've learned and add her own insights and she'll put an end to it. (afterword.17-afterword.21)

The legacy of de León writers continues. Now, Oscar's niece will continue his work… at least in Yunior's hopeful daydream. Maybe she'll even finish it and break the fukú against the family. But we have to wonder: Has Yunior already completed Oscar's work? Isn't this novel, written by Yunior, a zafa against Trujillo's fukú?

In that letter he talked about his investigations and the new book he was writing, a book that he was sending under another cover. Told her to watch out for a second package. This contains everything I've written on this journey. Everything I think you will need. You'll understand when you read my conclusions. (It's the cure to what ails us, he scribbled in the margins. The Cosmos DNA.)

Only problem was, the f***ing thing never arrived! Either got lost in the mail or he was slain before he put it in the mail, or whoever he trusted to deliver it forgot. (3.final letter.2-3.final letter.3)

Of course, the secret of the universe—the Cosmos DNA, as Oscar puts it—never arrives. Remember how that evil Dominican dictator Balaguer left a few pages in his memoir blank? Those were the pages that would have explained the journalist Orlando Martínez's death. Oh, and remember how the man that keeps haunting Oscar and Beli and others has no face? Maybe, whether you're writing a novel, a historical textbook, or a cross between the two, you always leave the most important stuff unsaid. No one and no thing has all of the answers in this life. Not fact, not fiction, not any person or piece of art.