Book of The Month: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Our first reading pick will be: The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

The reading deadline will be the 15th of the following month, with open and rolling discussion thereafter.

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is Diaz’s second book and his first novel. In April 2008, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It’s unlike any book we’ve ever read. With its fringe-character narrator, its sprawling historical asides (Dominican history is peppered throughout, primarily via reeeeally long footnotes); and the Don Quixotesque travails of the titular character, it succeeds as the rare work of simultaneous fiction and nonfiction.

Grab a copy at (where it’s currently on sale for $7.95) or at your local library (support community literacy!) and we’ll start to discuss it on February 15. See you then.

27 thoughts on “Book of The Month: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

  1. Oscar Wao. « PostBourgie February 15, 2009 at 11:47 pm Reply

    […] Oscar Wao. By G.D. Categories: Literature and PostBourgie Reading and Discussion Group You can join the discussion here, folks. […]

  2. slb February 15, 2009 at 11:49 pm Reply

    Though I didn’t get a chance to re-read Oscar Wao for this discussion, I wanted to toss an initial comment about its ending into the ring.

    I remember the intense anticipation I felt during my entire experience with the novel, based on its title. I knew Oscar’s life would be “brief” before I even opened the cover. I knew the novel’s title wasn’t a metaphor by the end of the first chapter. So I spent the entire time frenzied, willing my mind to race ahead and figure out how he’d die.

    I gotta say: I was a little let down.

    I thought he’d die for dredging up old Trujillato mythos. Or he’d kill himself, in light of some family history discovery. I didn’t think he’d be killed for a short affair with the prostitute next door.

    I also hoped he’d die a virgin, because for some reason, I thought that would be beautiful and poignant. lol

    I’d like to say more, but I’ll wait until a few other topics of discussion are on the table.

    • josie November 7, 2009 at 8:49 pm Reply

      i love this book!!!
      i loved the beginning middle ending and anything in between.
      i am domonican and i loved the way diaz mixed in the spanish and the historical footnotes about DR…. i am actually from the south and i liked the way that diaz explained how it looked… he got it right on especially the cane fields and wat not
      i think that this book is relatable especially to a domonican girl like me b/c i think that we’ve all felt trapped with all the traditions and the sexism
      it was one of the best books i ever read!!!

  3. kaya February 15, 2009 at 11:52 pm Reply

    i’m glad we can start talking about this book!
    slb it’s interesting bc as diaz sets it up from the beginning that this character is going to die, i found myself wondering often how it would happen. but i thought the death was appropriate and poetic (for lack of better words). i couldn’t see it any other way – the trujillo connection, family history and his mother’s escape in a way catching up with him.

    i enjoyed and was annoyed by this book at the same time. the footnotes, though informative, drove me crazy. seeing “nigger” typed out about a million times was also irritating. i’m not going to get inot a discussion of who can/can’t say it and is it “nigga” vs “nigger.” all i can say is i had an instinctive reaction of disgust. every single time. as in who does this guy think he is and did he really have to say that? i’d be interested in how other people felt about this.

  4. quadmoniker February 15, 2009 at 11:53 pm Reply

    Oscar’s death didn’t disappointment but it ran the risk, like other things in the book, of having been cheesy in less capable hands. He’s such a good writer, though, that it wasn’t at all. And his death had to be in pursuit of a woman, that was always what drove Oscar to despair.

    I wanted to re-read it for this discussion as well but also didn’t have time. There’s nothing I don’t love about it. I love it’s weird, asymmetrical chronology. I love Beli’s life: her time in the DR was epic, spanning the city and the country and all kinds of virtue versus vice, but her life in New Jersey centered around one apartment in one neighborhood and her two jobs. I thought he jumped seamlessly between voices, but the part where Lola ran away was the only part that, for me, dragged a bit.

  5. Midnight Raver February 16, 2009 at 4:03 pm Reply

    I played the audio book in my car doing my drive times and I really enjoyed this. Well written, funny, thought provoking and heart breaking. I was not too crazy about the use Nigger in the book. It seemed that no in the family was destined to be happy in life, although I was glad that Oscar got to experience a little happiness in the end.

  6. G.D. February 16, 2009 at 4:33 pm Reply

    i’m not going to get inot a discussion of who can/can’t say it and is it “nigga” vs “nigger.” all i can say is i had an instinctive reaction of disgust. every single time. as in who does this guy think he is and did he really have to say that? i’d be interested in how other people felt about this.”

    kaya: I think you should go there, if you want to. i don’t say the word, and I tend to have a visceral response to it when people say it around me, but it didn’t bother me in this context for some reason. Maybe it’s because it didn’t feel forced or artificial. I think it’s interesting that you and Midnight Raver were bothered by that aspect of the book enough to single it out, because it seemed there was a lot of shit in there that stuck me as way more unsettling. I sort of took issue with his use of “nigger” mainly for phonetic reasons; it would just sound incorrect if you said aloud. what was it about it that bothered you, specifically?

    I have to agree with slb, tho. I thought him sleeping with the neighbor felt a little tacked on, and I don’t think I understood *her* motivations for doing it. Here’s this repulsive, profoundly depressed kid with serious boundary issues whose constant presence is agitating her violent boyfriend. I had a very paradoxical relationship with Oscar: I was riveted when the story centered around his struggles, but I *deeply* disliked him. I wanted him to be happy — or barring that, functional — but he was just so self-defeating, so myopic. The scene in which he dies was perfect for that reason: he just couldn’t help himself.

    Did anyone else read Ta-Nehisi’s The Beautiful Struggle? Both these books seem to have a very similar cultural sensibility. I wonder if there are other 30-somethings out there — the Atari Generation, let’s call them — whose writing is informed by Rakim as much as Tolkein.

  7. Kim February 16, 2009 at 4:42 pm Reply

    Hi, I pulled together a site for Oscar Wao with some translations and pop culture reference definitions – hopefully it will help!

  8. R. February 16, 2009 at 5:17 pm Reply

    From the point where I decided to read the book, I thought Oscar’s death would be the main driving force behind the story, but it wasn’t. Before the first chapter was over what I really wanted to know was how his brief life managed to turn out wondrous. It did. He finally got what he was always looking for. Right? I mean as cheesy as it may sound, he found love. The dude’s biggest concern wasn’t really about dying a virgin or not, but whether he’d ever know what being loved meant. Not falling in love, cuz he fell in love about three or four different times throughout the story, but finding someone who would reciprocate his feelings.

    I loved the way it was written. Luckily, I speak Spanish and caught a lot of the sci-fi/fantasy references in the story, and read Vargas Llosas’ novel last year (also a good one). Everything he wrote about and the voice he wrote it in was all too familiar. Actually, I have a close Dominican friend of whom I could not stop thinking about when I read this. I’d say the language he used was just right even if you don’t agree with it.

  9. mute February 16, 2009 at 10:02 pm Reply

    I read the book forever ago so I barely remember the plot, but I do remember two things that bothered me. Like G.D., I thought the ending was rather tacked on. I have no recollection of what the ending was, but I remember thinking it was a nice poetic wrap up. But turn the page and its like, p.s. oscar got some booty from this old chick in a cabin. meh.

    also, did anyone else feel like the women in the book were overly sexualized? i get that the story was being told by yunior and i guess that’s just the way he looks at women, but it just seemed over the top to me. I think LaInca was the only one who wasn’t described in large part by her boom-pow voluptuous dominican body parts or her ripening in adolescence. it bothered me. like, is that the only way to make a female character worth paying attention to?

  10. ladyfresshh February 16, 2009 at 11:56 pm Reply

    I loved this story. From the DR historical references(though it took me a bit to settle down and realize there weren’t interruptions but part of the story’s flow) to the family’s path of immigration to Oscar’s sad ass.

    mute: It annoyed me too but yes you answered your own question Yunior was a womanizing asshole, this would be what he paid attention to.

    R: he found love and dammit i needed that pay off for that sad sap of character

  11. L.Arnell February 17, 2009 at 12:35 pm Reply

    R. and ladyfreshh: I’m not entirely convinced that Oscar did find love in the end, as callous as that may sound. I got the sense that his constant obsession and blind passion for the IDEA of love in the ultra-dramatized fantasy of comic book lore deluded his faculties and ultimately impaired him from experiencing the real thing. I saw no profound differences between his feelings for Ybon and for those of Ana or La Jablesse, it was only the tenacity of his resolve, his collapse of all boundaries, his suicidal tendencies and his desperation that were heightened. Ybon having sex with Oscar wasn’t necessarily any sort of confirmation that his love was mutually felt, her story and motivation was too much of a mystery to glean such a conclusion (mainly due to her biased depiction from the objectifying Yunior and the delusioanl Oscar).
    In the end I saw the the drama and struggle that the violent boyfriend represented playing as much of pivotal role in Oscars fantasy of “love” as did Ybon. Even though I thought he was an incredibly tragic character , I thought the ending was fitting because he was able to, in his mind, fulfill the role of hero, unabashedly rising to adversity, “getting the girl” and becoming a martyr in the name of love (regardless of the reality of the situation), writing himself into one of his fantasy novels.

  12. quadmoniker February 17, 2009 at 1:21 pm Reply

    LArnell: I agree with you. I don’t think Oscar got anything by the end of the book, and I don’t think he was supposed to. And I don’t think we were supposed to like him. I think we were meant to sympathize with Yunior and Lola, who were inextricably attached to a boy who never grew up who was hell-bent on destroying himself. I think that would have been Ybon’s interest in him as well. She was self-destructive, too.

  13. joyous February 17, 2009 at 2:23 pm Reply

    it’s been awhile since i read the book as well, but i remember finding the ending to be a weird sort of unraveling of the narrative (which may make sense in some sort of meta- way, i guess). i felt that the various voices and stories all made sense, and then as we got to oscar’s demise (including his relationship with the older woman), the sensibility started to fall apart.
    i LOVED drown, diaz’s novel/stories from the late 90’s, and i think maybe my expectations for wao were overly high because of it. yunior’s and oscar’s voices are spot-on in the way Drown’s narrators’ voices were, but i felt that the sheer length of the novel started to pull it apart.
    the footnotes were awesome, though. i learned a lot of what i know about DR from this book (sadly so, perhaps).

  14. ladyfresshh February 17, 2009 at 6:59 pm Reply

    L.Arnell – because he was able to, in his mind, fulfill the role of hero, unabashedly rising to adversity, “getting the girl” and becoming a martyr in the name of love (regardless of the reality of the situation), writing himself into one of his fantasy novels.

    That’s the interesting part, to him that was love. His self destructive path led him to his ideal role of the ultimate romantic martyr for love. Finding the focus for his ideal of love for love’s sake made him about as tragically happy as he could be. (Love apparently is subjective in the details for each person) i think this also explains the ‘oh by the way’ ending because sex with Ybon and what was thrown in at the end was important to us, not to Oscar’s story of love.

  15. tasty chemicals February 18, 2009 at 12:44 am Reply

    The historical aspects of the DR and the Trujillo dictatorship were very interesting to me, having very little understanding of the climate of that time. Beli’s time at El Rendentor with Jack Pujols as well as her affair with the gangster saddened me. The corn field brutalities and the mongoose occurrences…these aspects of the fukú were alluring and haunting to me throughout the book. The voices were agreeable to me however the dialects threw me off a bit at times. The demise of Abelard’s family and to a lesser extent the Mirabal sisters (there is a movie supposedly coming out about them) kept me curious. Abelard had this beautifully composed family, yet also a mistress. In the final letter from Oscar to Lola, he advises her to keep watch for a second package…a cure to the fukú? They will never know, because it never arrives…

    I will be purchasing Drown shortly.

  16. cindylu February 18, 2009 at 3:51 am Reply

    I love the concept of fukú.

    I also agree with R.’s point about bilingualism. Diaz didn’t make it feel forced. I hate it when writers code switch but also (a) translate what they just wrote in another language or (b) throw in the other language to make you feel the speaker is more authentic or exotic. Diaz didn’t do this at all. It just flowed.

    As for the use of n-word, that hit me too. Every single time, I just felt wrong. I wondered if he felt entitled as someone in the African diaspora.

    I got lost in the footnotes. I’ve seen other fiction writers do this too, and it felt like the story was interrupted. I don’t want to feel like I’m reading a history tome or an academic paper. However, the footnotes themselves were full of really useful information and background about the Trujillato, US intervention in the DR, DR popular culture, science fiction, etc.

    Last, after reading Oscar Wao, I thought it would be interesting to teach it along other epics that span generations and countries. Namely, I would contrast it with Sandra Cisneros’ Caramelo.

  17. L.Arnell February 19, 2009 at 12:41 am Reply

    ladyfreshh: Hmmmm I can certainly concede that Oscar found happiness, in that he was able to convince himself he was in love which is what he always wanted, but I’m still reticent to go any further. Happiness can be an isolated emotion, independent from anyone or the outside world, however, love, in the romantic context of this discussion, is contingent on external influences as its source (not its target). I think that Ybon’s emotions and motivations were such a mystery because they didn’t really matter to Oscar, it was never really about her as a person. I would always get frustrated at how little consideration or concern he had for how his obsessive actions effected her (she got her ass beat too). Oscar was in love with the idea of love and he just projected his pre-packaged ideal on one of the only girls that gave him the time of day. That he had to simply find “the focus for his ideal of love” objectifies that “focus” and renders her interchangeable. I know that im on a slippery slope here and that love is subjective and you can’t paint it with a broad stroke and I don’t mean to, but what Oscar ended up finding just seemed too insular and selfish to be called romantic love.

  18. quadmoniker February 19, 2009 at 12:59 am Reply

    About the “n” word, I don’t know whether we should ask if Diaz felt he was entitled to use it so much as ask whether he wanted to communicate that Yunior was the type of person who would use it. I don’t know if there’s any other word that would have fit with the voice, tone, and story he was trying to specifically make Yunior tell. It’s like SLB’s post about first-person narrative. Diaz isn’t doing the talking. The question is whether Yunior’s voice would have seemed authentic had he been saying anything else. Or whether it seemed like Yunior’s authentic voice.

  19. thepurplestuff February 19, 2009 at 12:51 pm Reply

    @ G.D. I definitely felt like I was reading Coates’ blog (haven’t read his book yet) in certain parts. The code switching was crazy, quick, and frequent. I speak enough spanish to have gotten most of those references, but I was out of my league on the sci-fi. Still, the youthfulness of the language felt completely indulgent; like on some, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, go learn because we’ve been learning your code all our life. I dug that.

    @ quadmoniker: I actually did like the part of Oscar that fully gave into his nerd-dom (knowing he’d be mocked, but not trying to be anything other than what he was). And I appreciated the bond he had with his sister. Reading L.Arnell’s comment on his strong projection of love onto any woman who didn’t straight diss him w/out regard for consequence to the woman made me rethink that a bit. Like Oscar passed on derivative fuku to any woman who would even be nice to him.

    Wonder how Oscar would have turned out if his masculinity standard (the one he was presented and/or perceived as a Dominican) wasn’t so focused on sex.

    I’ve been thinking about the sex, violence, and isolation (physical of the DR in that it is an island). How it played into Trujillo’s power and mystique. How much more rigid the class and color hierarchies seem to be when combined with relative physical isolation and how they are more brutally enforced. How it is easier to make a population docile, given the size, isolation (again), lack of economic opportunity, and opportunity for engagement. Not thinking about the history of the DR or any culture specifically, just how isolation of various kinds was a concept throughout and was crucial to our understandings of plot and character (Oscar, isolated throughout; Lola runs away to Wildwood; Beli = her own damn island and had to be to survive.) And to the history underneath the story as well.

    Lastly, did anybody else flinch at the violence? I had a visceral reaction to the beatings of which there were many. Diaz wrote the hell out of ‘em.

  20. uyen February 20, 2009 at 1:20 pm Reply

    okay, so it’s hard to jump into the middle of an already ongoing discussion, but at Gene’s request i will add my few cents:

    1.) the ending was just right. i don’t think there was any other way it could have happened & i was neither sad nor disappointed. Beli was driven out of the DR because of her romantic-but-mostly-sexual relationship with the Gangster. throughout most of the story, Oscar lacks any kind of conviction or drive, but then the story comes full circle. he shows himself in his last moments of life to be just like his mother… bull-headed, strong-willed, and driven (BACK to the DR this time) by a romantic-but-mostly-sexualized relationship.
    2.) i agree with thepurplestuff that within a different context of masculinization, perhaps Oscar’s story wouldn’t be so tragic. or maybe if he had a better male role model. but it seems to me that Trujillo either destroyed or subjugated any men who could have amounted to anything for Oscar. and in a way Trujillo was positioned to be the central male/father figure. so what happens to a kid when he rejects his father and loves his mother?
    3.) in comes Freud (sorry, i kinda reject Freud but i had to go there). while Ybon’s presence could be seen as a bit forced, i noticed something Oedipal going on there. she reminded me of Beli (a very sexualized older woman with a penchant for dangerous men). i haven’t fully fleshed it out in my mind yet. also, there’s this weird death/sex fantasy thing going on as well.
    4.) i agree with other posters about the bilingualism. i don’t speak a lick of Spanish and i LOVED that Diaz didn’t explain or translate any of it. it was more true to life. it’s not like we all walk around with a Babel Fish in our heads.
    5.) i also loved all the sci-fi/anime & manga references, maybe because i’m a closet nerd. but i think there was a larger purpose to it, in that Trujillo was so evil the only way you could truly grasp his monstrosity was through the lens of sci-fi.

    on a side note, the book inspired me to read Watchmen. maybe that could be the next book of the month??

  21. ladyfresshh February 20, 2009 at 1:58 pm Reply

    uyen: …i still haven’t read watchmen *hopes*…but i believe it will be alternating fiction and non fiction books each month

    i love #2 and i need to ‘chew’ on that for a moment

  22. […] a little a lot late putting this one up. Last month’s book focused on a family still feeling the reverberations of a violent dictatorship in the D.R. even […]

  23. […] seem confused at why Lola’s story was included or why things were so hypersexualized, but to me, it was so painfully true to life that I had to catch my breath after reading. Others […]

  24. Ike Moses April 10, 2009 at 8:00 pm Reply

    Anybody read Victor LaValle’s novel The Ecstatic/Homunculus? It’s also about an emotionally-challenged, overweight, West Indian geek living in the Tri-State Region with two equally crazy female relatives. It has hilarity and heartbreak in common with Oscar Wao, even though it lacks the historical scope and footnotes.

    • Mad Professah May 18, 2009 at 11:55 am Reply

      Thanks for the suggestion!

      I’m a West Indian geek living in Cali now but I went to college in the Tri-State area.

      LOVED Oscar Wao, as did my husband. (See A/A+ review )

      It was my favorite book of 2007.I went back and read Diaz’ collection of short stories (DROWN) and hated it!

      I will check out LaValle’s work. For some trippy sci-fi y’all should check out the work of Octavia Butler (Fledgling) and China Mieville (Perdido Street Station and The Scar)

  25. […] thingie we started a couple months ago? It got off to a rollicking start with Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and then rapidly flamed out with Edwidge Danticat’s Brother I’m […]

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