I feel that the title of this book is a little misleading. Much of this story isn’t focused on its main protagonist, Oscar, but focuses instead on his family lineage and their country of heritage, the Dominican Republic. I did like the book and feel that it is a well written and engaging generational story. However, the focus on Oscar (an awkward nerd who loves comic books and fantasy; traits that are unconventional for a young New Yorker of Dominican descent coming of age in the 1980s and 90’s) does feel like a slightly contrived postmodern narrative tool to tell the story of the 20th century Dominican Republic’s brutal history through the lens of an individual who vaguely resembles the stereotypical perception of a young Dominican man. There is a lot of talk within the pages about that stereotype – someone who would rather be a womanizing cat-caller. Oscar is hardly a womanizer, and he is actually quite terrified of woman and would rather plays Dungeons and Dragons, watch Akira over and over, and read Lord of the Rings hundreds of times as he imagines himself to be the next Tolkien writer.
Of course I completely recognize that my criticism may appear laced with prejudice about stereotypical expectations. But my problem isn’t that I expected, nor did I want this book to meet stereotypical expectations: that would be boring and that isn’t my point. I’m totally fine with Oscar not being a stereotypical Dominican man. I found him a likable character with well-defined and believable limitations that I can actually self-identity with. What makes me conflicted about this book is that much of its pages aren’t actually focused upon Oscar’s life, but upon his sister, his mother as a young woman, and his grandfather as a young father. Ultimately the stories of Oscar’s family are used to provide a backdrop to tell the story of Dominican Republic’s terrible and merciless dictator, Trujillo. The many references to Trujillo and his regime are told with heavy reliance on the lore of Lord of the Rings, often referring to Trujillo as Sauron and his henchman as his wringraiths or Nazgul. As a huge Lord of the Rings, fan myself I originally found these geeky similes as cute, but as the novel progresses it becomes obvious that Díaz is a little too over reliant upon them and they started to get tiring and distracting.
A good dose of criticism is a good thing, but I hope that I’m not painting an overly negative perspective of this book. Overall, it is a satisfying read and is a unique story. My knowledge of the Dominican Republic or even the history of any culture within the Caribbean besides Cuba is pretty limited. I had heard a little about Trujillo’s terrible brutality in the pages of Jared Diamond’s Collapse but that view was a brief mention that compares the differences between neighboring Haiti and the D.R. during Trujillo’s regime. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao provides a narrative portrayal of the impact of Trujillo’s regime upon a single family. I simply wish the book didn’t pretend to be about Oscar, had a different title, and was more confident in its narrative focus on the D.R. history and the impact that that history has upon a single family. The book does these tasks well, but in hiding behind the supposed story of Oscar’s life it doesn’t reach the fullness of its narrative potential.