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Literature / The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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"Of what import are brief, nameless lives... to Galactus??"
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Fantastic Four, (Vol. I, No. 49, April 1966)

They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fuká americanus, or more colloquially, fuká— generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Junot Díaz. The story revolves around the character Oscar de León, a consummate scifi and fantasy geek with horrendous luck with women who wants to be the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien. The story is told through his former roommate at Rutgers, Yunior, who comes off as a bit dickish when he is first introduced into the story, but grows into a better person by the time he is writing the novel. Yunior tells the story of Oscar's life by tracing Oscar's story through his sister Lola, his mother Hypatá Belicia Cabral (or Beli for short), and his grandfather Abelard Cabral's own tragic tales.

Between all of the geek references, untranslated Spanish, slang, and footnotes, you might get lost in the text and believe that Díaz assumes too much from the reader, or that he is aiming to disorient the reader. However, understanding all of his references isn't truly necessary for understanding the text.

Lin-Manuel Miranda narrates the audiobook.

This book contains examples of -

  • Abusive Parents: Beli is physically and emotionally abusive to Lola at times, even telling her to keep her mouth shut about a neighbor molesting her. Lola makes peace with Beli's memory after her mother dies.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Played straight, subverted and deconstructed all in the same book.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Averted with Beli who has oil scars all over back and later has to have one of her breasts removed.
  • Big Bad: You could argue that Trujillo or the fukú curse fulfill this role.
  • Big-Breast Pride: Beli becomes extremely well-endowed when she hits puberty. She's initially ashamed about her breasts, but soon begins flaunting them when she realizes that they make men fall all over her. Her daughter Lola, on the other hand, is as flat as a board but became just as well-endowed in a different area.
  • Big Damn Heroes: José Then and the rest of Belicia's old coworkers, who put themselves in danger of great harm by saving her life from some secret police thugs. José even pulls a pistol and jams it against one of their heads.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Several of the untranslated Spanish phrases give better insight to the character's emotions as well as providing additional context.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Oscar is no longer a virgin and found someone who he could get intimate with, but in doing so he got himself killed. Beli also died from breast cancer. Lola and Yunior marry other people, and Oscar's manuscript on his family's history is lost, possibly forever. But Oscar found love! Lola has also married and had a daughter, and it's implied she has broken the cycle of abuse that Beli started. Yunior, to atone for letting Oscar die on his watch, is writing a book to counter the fukú and give the future generations a fighting chance.
  • Black and Nerdy: Oscar falls into this category.
  • The Blank: The Man Without a Face appears during times of tragedy in the de León family.
  • Category Traitor: Oscar is considered one for being 1) bad with girls, and 2) literate.
  • Cultural Rebel: Oscar fit the profile to a T. Lola too, to a lesser degree.
  • Curse : Fukú may or may not be real, but Oscar and his family certainly get into some deep deep shit. Yunior hopes that his book will help Oscar's family break the curse.
  • Death by Despair:
    • Beli has No Sympathy towards Oscar trying to kill himself twice. This means that even with Lola and Yunior watching out for Oscar, he still decides that it's better to die after finding love with Ybon then to live and attempt to get treatment for his depression.
    • Shortly after this, Beli dies when Oscar is murdered and her cancer resurges. She lost the will to live after losing her only son.
  • Dirty Cop: Ybon's boyfriend is a thug with a badge.
  • Driven to Suicide : Oscar attempts this before moving in with Yunior, and again after he caught Jenni having sex with a punk guy. He fails both times.
  • Evil Overlord: Trujillo certainly fits the bill. He is directly compared to Darkseid and Sauron.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The word "Brief" being in the title isn't for show.
  • Footnote Fever: Quite unusual for a work of fiction.
  • Foreshadowing: Oscar has attempted suicide twice. This shows he has little regard for his life when he finally finds love with Ybon worth his subsequent fatal beating.
  • Geek Physiques: Oscar weighs over 300 pounds for most of his life.
  • Geek Reference Pool: Listing all of the references that Yunior includes to various aspects of Geek Culture would take a page unto itself. But that doesn't mean we are not going to try:
  • Gratuitous Spanish: See Bilingual Bonus.
  • Historical Domain Character: Why, yes, Rafael Trujilo was a real person, and dictator of the Dominican Republic. He didn't have a sister, though one shows up in the text. Other historical figures, such as the Mirabal Sisters and Joaquin Balaguer, show up in the footnotes.
  • Idiot Ball: Oscar is portrayed as fairly intelligent in most of the book, but his decisions in the last section (namely returning to the Dominican Republic and continuing to pursue a woman with a cop boyfriend who had him beaten almost to death when he hung out with her before) are almost unfathomably stupid.
  • In Love with the Gangster's Girl: Oscar with Ybon.
  • Insistent Terminology: Oscar's geeky interests are lumped together as "the Genres."
  • Karma Houdini:
    • The most Beli's boyfriend does for her after other thugs beat her up and cause her to miscarriage is apologize, deny that he knew it would happen, and give her a chance to leave the country. She does so reluctantly and tries to start a new life.
    • Yunior mentions that he sees Ybon's husband living in New York, having suffered no consequences for murdering Oscar.
  • Lonely Funeral: Oscar's funeral at the end of the novel is attended only by Yunior, Lola, Beli and La Inca.
  • Loners Are Freaks: Oscar.
  • Love Cannot Overcome: Even though Yunior loves Lola and even dates her at one point, she can't return his feelings. It's because Oscar attempted suicide while rooming with him, and then borrowed money from him to return to Ybon, which leads to Oscar's brutal death.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: Oscar, so very much. We see in a flashback that he inherited this trait from his mother Beli, who nearly got killed because of it, with Oscar being even less lucky because he thinks dying for love is better than living alone.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The curse on the family, which Yunior calls fukú. On the one hand, the previous generation suffered really bad luck under Trujillo, which is what led to Beli being scarred as a child. One could argue, however, that the cause is more rooted in genetic mental illness and generational trauma; Oscar's bad mental health could have been inherited from his mother, and neither of them had the resources in their respective time periods to get the support they needed.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Both Yunior and Oscar are aspiring writers; the later of pulpy SF, and the former of hyper-violent Film Noir.
  • Named Like My Name: Óscar de León, the main character, has the name of a famous salsa singer. This is, though, never mentioned in the book.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Both Oscar and his mother, Beli, receive one in the very same place.
  • N-Word Privileges: The N-word is used very liberally in the book.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Yunior kicks himself when he realizes that Oscar asked him for a loan, and Oscar has never asked anyone for money. Oscar wanted to fly back to the Dominican Republic and reunite with Ybon.
  • Plausible Deniability: When Oscar is caught driving an unconscious Ybon in the Dominican, he tells her boyfriend that he thought the not-so former had broken up. Ybon's boyfriend still orders his men to take Oscar to the sugarcane field and deliver a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Oscar finds love...and then is killed brutally.
  • Revenge Before Reason: Subverted. Much as Yunior would like to get even with Ybon's husband for killing Oscar and hurting Lola never does so when they encounter each other. For one, the man has enough firepower and money to defend himself. And for another, he doesn't even know who Yunior is. No one would win by Yunio getting himself killed or arrested for murder.
  • Sensei for Scoundrels: Yunior tries this with Oscar and fails utterly.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Oscar and Yunior definitely fall into these categories.
  • She Is All Grown Up: Jacquelyn and Beli blossom almost overnight from skinny girls into stunningly beautiful and well-endowed teenagers, although it doesn't do them much good in the long run. Especially for Jacquelyn and her poor doomed family in the Age of Trujillo.
  • Slut-Shaming: Beli makes it a point to call Ybon a puta (a prostitute) at every opportunity. Ybon nearly getting Oscar killed doesn't endear Beli to her.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Jacquelyn and Beli are both stunning, and their beauty wins them all the wrong kinds of attention.
  • Shout-Out: The title is an allusion to the Ernest Hemingway story, The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber.
  • Stalking Is Love: Oscar is very... persistent to say the least, with Ybon.
  • Too Dumb to Live:
    • Beli after her boyfriend impregnates her thinks that she can go on as she does when a few Mirabal Sisters show up and tell her she has to abort the baby and has to stay away from him. She doesn't get the memo and refuses to get an abortion. This means that several police thugs beat her to death after luring her out of her house, and cause her to miscarry. She's lucky to be alive.
    • Oscar's attempts to persuade Ybon to ditch her husband for him, despite him nearly being killed by his goons before escaping to America and the persuasions of those closest to him not to go through with the act.
  • Warts and All: Lola has this attitude about her mother at the end of the book. Beli was an awful person, a terrible mother that didn't understand mental illness, and a Hypocrite slut-shamer considering her past. Lola will never forgive or forget what her mother did to her to make her feel ugly and unloved, using Oscar as a pawn and their go-between. She also understands that Beli didn't know how to be a parent and felt burdened with the responsibility of rearing two kids alone after her husband died. Oscar's death also pushed Beli's cancer to a fatal condition, showing she did care about her son.
  • What You Are in the Dark:
    • When Beli lies semiconscious in the sugarcane field, she has a vision of a creature telling her she has to live so that she will have her two children. Beli decides to listen and reluctantly leave her home.
    • Oscar later encounters this same creature after being in a similar situation. He still decides that it's better to try and win Ybon over.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: Averted, Beli and her family go back to Santo Domingo every year for vacation.