The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, as the title suggests, recounts the life of Oscar de Leon, a Dominican American growing up in the suburban community of Paterson, New Jersey. Wao is a self-proclaimed geek who feels unable to fit in with the macho stereotype of Dominican males. Much of the novel is dedicated to recounting tales of Oscar’s awkwardness and unsociability, especially when it comes to the opposite sex, and his ambivalent relationship with his ethnic roots, symbolised by the domineering figure of his mother. The novel is given extra weight and profundity by the way in which Junot Diaz manages to intertwine the life of Oscar with the upbringing of his mother in the Dominican Republic, and the tragic and violent history of the years of the Rafael Trujillo dictatorship.
Junot Diaz uses the parallel lives of Oscar Wao and his mother, Hypatia Belicia Cabral, as a means of interrogating the way in which notions of identity fluctuate in the lives of immigrants and how a history of oppression can haunt an individual. The novel is also a stylistic tour de force, which engages with various genre tropes, in particular science fiction, of which Oscar is a massive fan, whilst also deploying an intriguing mixture of Spanish dialects and Dominican American slang.
The novel took Diaz eleven years to write and much of what went into the book was autobiographical, since Diaz is, like Oscar, a ‘Dominican kid from Jersey’, and his novel has received an overwhelmingly positive critical reception, including the Pulitzer Prize in 2008. The novel has been cited as an example of ‘diaspora literature’ whereby the novel’s form and content question notions of identity and history, and postulate that those notions may be more fluid than most presumed.
By Thomas Storey