Becoming Well-Read: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao


Intro: When I started this column, I thought about making it some sort of trip through a particular award. After all, Scribd’s Editorial Manager Alex P.’s bio proclaims “if it’s been shortlisted for an award, she’ll probably read it.” (I can attest this is true.) Scribd’s marketing manager, David P., has frequently talked about how he reads whatever book wins the Man Booker Prize each year. (While I haven’t investigated this claim thoroughly, I believe it to be true.)

But I have no such traditions. I get excited when new Hemingway Library Editions of Ernest Hemingway’s works come out, when a new Nicholas Sparks book is released, and when a truly great young adult series drops. I’ll probably pick up a book if it has the word “wolves” in the title. These are just character quirks.

Another quirk: To be honest, I’m actively wary of award-winners. Half the time, they don’t seem to reflect what people are actually reading. I like to wait for time to pass with them, to see how much culture still cares about a particular book a decade down the line.

But a part of me also wants to fit in. I want a schtick! I want to read every book that’s won a particular award, even the books on that award’s longlist (take that, Alex!). And if I had to pick an award to follow, it’d be the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, because every time I see the list of winners, I’m reminded how much I really do desperately want to read those books. (I’d get to the other cagillion Pulitzer categories later.)

To give perspective about how bad I actually am at following this dream, looking at the winners of the Pulitzer since the year 2000, I have read only one — one! — of the books on that list. (If you must know, it was last year’s winner, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.) And while I, again, want to read all of them, there’s one in particular I feel vast shame for never getting to until this column — The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz.

Back in 2013, while working at a now-defunct reading subscription startup, a coworker asked me if I had read Díaz’s work, to which I, of course, responded no. He then lectured me about how it was one of the greatest books of my generation, of all-time even. So now, five years later, I shall read it, because I have been assured, a decade after its initial publication, that culture still cares about this one. 

What I Think It’s About: Okay, okay, I’m pretty certain it is, for real, about a guy named Oscar Wao. The trick is whether his life is actually “wondrous” and/or “brief.” Is the “wondrous” ironic? I feel like it’s ironic but in that paradoxical way of literary fiction, where it just seems like his life sucks but really it’s a fantastic, wild, glorious ride while it lasted. (Okay, seriously, you don’t understand, I have been wondering about this title for at least five years now!)

What It’s Actually About: It’s hard to say this is a book about a guy named Oscar Wao, one, because his actual name is Oscar de León, with the “Wao” just being a nickname, a bastardization of “Oscar Wilde” (another thing I’ve always wondered about!), and two, because Oscar’s narrative takes up probably less than half of the overall story. Shifting between the distant past and the not-as-distant-past, the book also follows Oscar’s sister, Lola, and their mother, Beli, and their grandfather, Abelard, all told from the perspective of Oscar and Lola’s friend, Yunior. It’s a story about life in the Dominican Republic, particularly under the dictator Rafael Trujillo, and being a Dominican transplant in New Jersey.

Reading this book is wondrous even if Oscar’s life is not wonderful. And it is brief. It is brief.

Why You Should Read It Right Now: It’s easy to see why my coworker recommended I read this back in the day, both on a personal and political and you know what, just about every level. It’s easy to see why this novel has gotten so much praise, even if it’s not always an easy novel to read. Just start it, and be entranced by the blending of fact and fiction and the beauty of Yunior’s Spanglish slang.

Why someone would recommend this to me, personally: It is widely known that I’m pretty into anime and manga (as evidenced by the fact that my Scribd teammates bought me Yu-Gi-Oh! cards for my birthday, and my two side podcasts). Oscar is also a nerd who’s pretty into anime (his favorite is Robotech/Macross, a franchise connected to my favorite anime, The Vision of Escaflowne, via producer Minoru Takanashi. See? Nerds). I grew up just north of Philadelphia and hung out with a lot of kids from New Jersey, while Oscar grew up in Paterson, New Jersey. There are few things more fun than anime and making fun of how crummy New Jersey is. (Except books, of course. Duh.)

Politically, let’s be real, how much do you know about the Dominican Republic? (I went there once, also in 2013, to enjoy the pretty beaches. I couldn’t tell you anything about the country’s history.) Yunior puts everybody in their place right off the bat, giving a little DR history lesson, acknowledging that you probably didn’t learn these things in school. In an interview with Slate, Díaz asserts, “You can't tell the history of the U.S. without the history of the Dominican Republic, and yet people do so all the time. Oscar, like Lola, like Yunior, is one of Trujillo’s children. His shadow, his legacy, is upon them all in ways that none of them understand. Trujillo is a local version of the legacy of the New World, which all of us who live in this hemisphere carry upon our heads. The novel’s question is: How do you deal with this legacy? Do you run from it? Do you ignore it, deploy existential denial? These are strategies that add to the legacy’s power, that guarantee its perpetuation.”

It’s a needed lesson full of strong-willed, tragic characters, victims and perpetrators of brutality. There are times where Yunior tries to spare the readers the worst of the violence by just describing the aftermath, the broken bones and broken spirits. But this a story about the atrocities and legacies of dictatorship, about sexuality and hypermasculinity, and so it can be particularly hard to read as a woman. And it can be hard to believe that much of this fictional tale is deeply steeped in historical reality.

Really, we’ve just scratched the surface of what The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is about here. Or how much it loves and makes language magical. Or how Junot Díaz is a genius, legitimately one of the greatest writers of a generation. This is just a little blog about a momentous book, an American classic. Oscar Wao is only about 11 hours long in audio format (this audiobook edition also includes Díaz’s collection of short stories, Drown), but it takes you through almost a century of history and delves into the lives of three generations more intimately than far longer books that actually focus on their titular character exclusively. So, go. And next time, when your friends and coworkers tell you to read something because it’s the biggest book of the decade, don’t wait several years to pick it up.  

P.S. I know what you’re thinking. “Ashley, you know what else has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction? Gone with the Wind.” Alright, you’ve got me. But listen. Scribd lists that book as over 1,500 pages long. I need time! I need at least 10 more years!

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