“That’s life for you. All the happiness you gather to yourself, it will sweep away like it’s nothing. If you ask me I don’t think there are any such things as curses. I think there is only life. That’s enough.”
Over the course of this Pulitzer Project, many books have really stood out, some of them connected with Joshua and me, and a few of them really pulled us in. But none of them, save for Junot Diaz’s 2008 winner, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, impacted us in such a way that it made us want to throw ourselves to the floor, curl up in the fetal position, and just scream.
This beautiful, tragic, haunting, mesmerizing, hilarious, terrifying, gut-wrenching, heart-rending debut novel fires on all cylinders, creating a world for the reader to get lost in or stifled by.
I get it—this book is definitely not for everybody. Hell, it’s not even for most people. While the plot revolves around the all-too-common theme of a nerdy, fat kid that just wants to experience love, Diaz throws in a lot of obscure nerd references and plenty of Spanglish that is hard to overcome for people who aren’t familiar with it. Furthermore, the main character is difficult to endear for people who don’t share his background, interests, or lot in life.
For me, though, I identified with it all too well. When I was his age, I was Oscar Wao, too. I was fat and nerdy; I didn’t play Magic or read JRR Tolkin like Oscar does, but I read way more than my peers, I didn’t have any friends, I read a lot of comic books, watched a lot of cartoons, and I was obsessed with my NES. Oscar spends his life pining for love; me too, kid—I didn’t have a girlfriend until I was 18.
Oscar Wao is a nerd, a geek, an outsider, a reject, a black sheep, but most of all—he’s an entire group of people that, until very recently, solely existed on the fringe. If Oscar were a teenager today, he’d be revered; he’d at least be well-liked; maybe even envied. Geek is chic and nerd is cool—he would have had no problem connecting with people who share his interests. And, to be perfectly honest, I think a big reason why this book was so polarizing when it came out in 2008 is because of that—being nerdy wasn’t cool yet; people picked this book up and got down to trying understand Oscar Wao and just gave up on him because they didn’t understand his culture or his interests.
This novel isn’t just a nerd’s magnum opus, however. Diaz does much to detail the entirety of the Dominican immigrant experience through the lives of Oscar’s overbearing mother and popular, athletic sister and, to be honest, this book is just as much about them as it is about Oscar.
We’re just starting to groove with sympathy for fat little Oscar when Diaz suddenly shifts gears and takes us into the world of Lola, Oscar’s beautiful, athletic sister who has a stormy relationship with their mother, Belicia, a “hardnosed no-nonsense femme-matador.” Then, before too many more pages have elapsed, we’re deep in that woman’s story, in a long section of the book called “The Three Heartbreaks of Belicia Cabral,” where we learn what happened to her back in the Dominican Republic to make her so bitterly protective of her children.
These chapters, along with the rest of the book for that matter, are filled with heartbreak and tragedy. And it is relentless.
This book left me dazed and breathless, as if somebody had just sucker punched me and it is the only Pulitzer that managed to make me feel this way. When Oscar saves his family by sacrificing himself to the fuku, I lost it. I cried and cried and I’m not ashamed to admit it. And when I closed the back flap and put the book back on the shelf, I felt so raw, so tender, and so bruised.
Oscar Wao may have lived a “brief, wondrous life”, but he sure left a lasting impression on this reader.
Andrew is a husband, father, dog lover, craft beverage enthusiast, content creator, and niche market Internet celebrity. Formerly of A Table in the Corner of the Cafe and The Pulitzer Project and contributor to Barista Magazine and Mental Floss, he’s been writing on the Internet for years.