The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is about the (pretty brief, relatively wondrous) life of Oscar, a Dominican American nerd who lives in New Jersey. Oscar is extremely overweight, extremely nerdy, and painfully lonely. He spends most of the book searching for love (and sex) – when he isn’t rereading Lord of the Rings or writing his own sci-fi stories. But his family is under the effects of a fukú: a curse that’s been going on for three generations, ever since his grandfather defied the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. Oscar’s life, just like the lives of the rest of his family, thus tends towards bitterness.
I loved this book. The characters are realistic and affable, even when they’re being assholes. The prose is fluid and easy; it’s written from the point of view of a friend of Oscar’s, a narrator who writes as though he’s telling you the story over a drink. The novel covers some dark, horrible history empathetically and thoroughly, but without revelling in pain. For such a dark book, it also frequently made me laugh. Altogether, I can see why it won a Pulitzer. I can also see why many people loathe it. Thus I’ll give three ‘warnings’ with the rec:
1) The Genre
Magic realism often gets a bad rep in fantasy circles (“It’s just the snobby way of saying fantasy!”/“It’s just Latin American fantasy!”). If you consider magic realism a genre in its own right, Oscar Wao has all the right tropes for it: fukú or coincidence?, vaguely prophetic dreams, matter-of-fact acceptance of some crazy shit. If you don’t consider magic realism a separate genre, the book’s honestly best classified as grimdark. It features torture, rape, racism, life under a dictatorship, attempted suicide and heavy depression, child abuse (both emotional and physical), slurs of all kinds. There are no detailed descriptions of the darker scenes, but the bluntness with which the pain is described (“Was there time for a rape or two? I suspect there was, but we shall never know because it’s not something she talked about.”) hits just as hard. The crapsack world is made even more grim by the reminder that it’s our own; while this particular story is made-up, its bones are true.
2) The Title
The title is misleading. The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is only in part about Oscar Wao himself. The book tells the story of three generations: from Oscar’s grandfather, a rich doctor who falls from grace during the dictatorship, to Oscar’s mother, who manages to love with a reckless abandon despite how bitter her life is, to Oscar and his sister, two very different people who still care for each other deeply. Tbh my main experience with Latin American magic realism is Allende’s The House of the Spirits, which also features a generational saga, so I kinda expected the “meanderings”. But the title is specific enough that a lot of people find the contents jarring, so it seems prudent to warn for it. (If you want to go all litcrit on it, all the diversions about different family members tie back into Oscar’s life: they are the reason he is how he is, whether through passed down fukú or because of how their lives and circumstances affect his.)
3) The Spanish
Oscar Wao is written by an author who’s unabashedly, unapologetically bilingual, and the narrator and the characters are even more so. Spanish is used for emphasis, for flavour, for beauty, and for fun. It’s the book that I, when I was growing up as a multilingual immigrant kid, dreamed of reading (and dreamed of writing). Only thing is, I… don’t speak Spanish. I was therefore unsure of how to approach it: reading the ebook would allow me to copy-paste the Spanish into Google Translate, listening to the audiobook would take away the urge to fixate on minutia or skim.
In the end, I went for audiobook. Mainly because the majority of it is read by Lin Manuel Miranda (creator of Hamilton, songwriter for Moana) and I was intrigued. Two sections are also narrated by the wonderful Karen Olivo (In the Heights, West Side Story Broadway revival). I highly recommend this version for others who don’t speak Spanish. Miranda narrates as he seems to do everything else: excellently and with a lot of enthusiasm. Did I understand every word? No. Was the narration able to convey the flavour and the meaning anyway? Yes. And if there’s anything people want to know in particular, there’s this handy webpage of annotations, which includes both translations from Spanish and a list of nerdy references.
In short, then, if my three warnings haven’t warned you off, I really recommend this book. In particular I recommend it to:
- People who are multilingual and want a book where their way of thinking/speaking is the norm
- People who like dark fantasy and are interested in something very different
- People who enjoy Isabel Allende or Gabriel García Márquez, or would like to try some Latin American magic realism but want a more contemporary feel to it
- People who want to read fantasy but still impress their hipster friends/literature professor/mom
- People who like Hamilton and are interested in hearing Lin yell I LOVE YOU I WANT TO HAVE ALL YOUR CHILDREN