Book Club: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

This month the MC book club argues the merits of a Dominican super-nerd in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, now out in paperback. Did it really deserve this year's Pulitzer?

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
(Image credit: Archives)

THE PLOT: Remember that guy in high school--the chubby sci-fi lover who couldn't get a date? That's Junot Díaz's mega-geek, Oscar. All the poor guy wants is to get laid. When he doesn't, he resolves to break the family curse he believes is responsible. Told in street Spanglish, this Pulitzer winner takes us from Dominican beaches to Jersey barrios and back, offering one view of the developing nation's troubled history, through the eyes of a very unlucky family.

JIHAN (EDITORIAL ASSISTANT): I loved this book. When I wasn't reading it, I wanted to be reading it.

ABIGAIL (DEPUTY EDITOR): There was so much hype about this book--I expected to be swept away by a magical, hip, gritty story from the first sentence. But it took me a while to get into it; it felt disjointed at first with all the footnotes. I say, either weave them into the story or skip 'em.

JIHAN: Oh, really? I liked them. At first I was a little put off--is this going to be a history lesson? Then again, I wasn't exactly up on my history of the Dominican Republic, so it was helpful.

SARAH (EDITORIAL ASSISTANT): I didn't like all the sci-fi and comic-book references. There were so many, and I felt like if you didn't get them, he wasn't going to connect it for you. It was the same with the Spanglish--they were switching between English and Spanish all the time. It made me feel like, Wow, I'm missing a lot of the story.

JIHAN: See, I thought the Spanglish really set the tone. Like when Oscar gets into that fight with his mother about girls, Díaz writes that his mom "hauled Oscar to his feet by his ear. Mami stop it, his sister cried . . . Dale un galletazo, she panted, then see if the little puta respects you." How great was that? Can't you just picture it?

LAUREN (ARTICLES EDITOR): God, his mom was so awful to him and his sister. Every hope, every dream they had in their Jersey ghetto was quashed. But later--when you learn she was tortured, had her heart crushed, and was then nearly beaten to death by gangsters--you kinda get it.

ABIGAIL: I like how you get that sense of this family with a foot in two worlds. It gives good insight into the immigrant experience. But I didn't love the main character.

LAUREN: Oh, I adored Oscar. He was so sad. That scene where he tries to start the sci-fi book club and two Thursdays in a row he waits alone in the classroom and no one shows up . . . The whole book is about the desire to belong. He strives for it his whole life, so I was rooting for him.

ABIGAIL: And it was a complete send-up of the macho stereotype.

SARAH: Ugh, the most I could rally for Oscar was pity. And I feel like the foreshadowing--that you know from the very beginning that he's going to die--just killed any suspense for me. You're just waiting for this curse that you keep hearing about on every page to be realized and kill him.

JIHAN: Well, the curse, which is called fukú, is really "fuck you," isn't it? If you read it like that from the start, it's pretty funny.

LAUREN: Yeah, because it's like his life has been one big Fuck You.