Caryn Cline & Sam Schrager
Eye of the Story
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
“The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.” – Joseph Conrad
“Chance and chance alone has a message for us. Everything that occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out, is mute. Only chance can speak to us.” –Milan Kundera
At the time I am writing this I have not yet finished reading Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and so I cannot promise that the connections I am going to try to make in this paper will be of any relevance at all. This book is not an easy read — and I know I’m not the only one that thinks so because as soon as I knew I would be writing my paper on this book I decided to read some spoiler-free reviews on Amazon. Diaz fills this story with a lot of information, he doesn’t care about marking dialogue with punctuation, throws in a lot of obscure references to pop culture, and frequently switches between Spanish and English mid-sentence. Despite all of that the book reads really well. Diaz has an excellent command of voice and his narrators really bring his work to life, managing to push through any potential cultural ignorance and linguistic barriers that may occur.
I don’t know much at this point in the book but here are some things I do know:
1) The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is so much more than just the story of the character known as Oscar.
2) Oscar is going to die at some point and while that’s technically true for all of us, it’s a much more pressing matter for Oscar and therefore for us as readers.
3) This is a story about family, about identity, about chance/coincidence, and about tragedies both big and small, real and imagined.
Before this story even truly begins, one of the narrators tells us that Oscar and his family are cursed. And it’s not just any curse. It’s the fuku and the fuku ain’t something to laugh at. This is how our narrator describes it, “They say is came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that is 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 (1).” So it’s pretty serious. So serious that it’s believed there is only one “counterspell” – the zafa. Yunior (the narrator of this particular passage) hopes that by writing this book (yes, this book, the one we’re reading) he can counter the fuku that has plagued Oscar’s family.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is not a happy book. It is a hilarious and well-written book that made me literally laugh out loud quite a few times, but the humor is mandatory comedic relief. Part of the beauty of this book is in its narrative style. The structure of this book is actually quite complex and by the time we figure out who our first mysterious (and misogynistic) narrator is, we’re unsure if we can even trust his narrative. This reader in particular questioned how he could possibly know everything we end up knowing. We don’t know for sure that the events depicted in this book actually happened (to the characters) but we have good reason to trust that they did happen. However, we have no reason to trust Yunior’s account of these events. The stories that are being recounted by Yunior occurred before he even met Oscar and Lola. He was not there when Oscar was a child and we know for a fact he wasn’t around when Beli was young. Knowing this, we’re forced to question not if the events actually happened, but whether the events depicted actually meant as much to the characters as they do to Yunior. We receive conflicting information from this narrator. On page 6, he tells us that, “I’m not entirely sure Oscar would have liked this designation. Fuku story. (6)” And then on page 194, he recounts a conversation he had with Oscar after his failed suicide attempt. He claims that Oscar told him, “It was the curse that made me do it, you know. (194)”. He tells Oscar he doesn’t believe in that shit, that it’s for their parents. Oscar says it’s theirs, too.
But let’s think about that. Did the fuku really make Oscar jump off that bridge? Or did he choose to? He sees a mongoose (more on that later) a moment before he jumps, and it’s implied that if he had moved at that time he would have been okay.
So we’ve got some magic realism and a narrator that may or may not be reliable. I think it’s worth noting (and remembering) that our narrator is also a writer and, as writers are want to do, may be adding a bit of fiction to his narrative.
This is a story that covers three generations of a family cursed with the fuku. Through its complicated story structure, the use of magical realism, and the story’s complex narrative we see members of this family make the same mistakes over and over again. They are all destined to experience tragedy, especially when it comes to love, though one could also claim the Dominican male’s attitude toward women in this book is a curse of another sort.
The fuku and the zafa. That’s what it all boils down to. But what do those two words really mean? If words are just symbols, what are these two words symbols for? I think that the fuku and the zafa represent chance/coincidence and personal responsibility/one’s perception of reality. They are the things we look at to prescribe meaning to our life as well as the things we blame when it feels like everything is going wrong. These two symbols represent life and our reaction to it. We know that the world is a painful place where bad things can happen to good people, but knowing something can only prepare you for it so much. Experience is how you really learn. And boy, do these characters learn a thing or two about pain.
The use of magical realism in this novel makes it that much more challenging to tell if the family is actually cursed or if they are merely the victims of coincidence, a force which at times seems significant when in fact it is not. After all, a coincidence only has power because it is a coincidence. It calls attention to itself. As does the magic realism in this book. On page 152, our narrator goes back to talk about the fuku and the zafa once more. He tells us how others argued over whether or not what happened to Beli was proof that she was cursed, and he presents both sides of the argument without giving us his opinion. All we get are the “facts” and a single quote from Beli, “I met something” (referring to either the mongoose or the faceless man, two other examples of magic realism that come up in this book). Her response is ambivalent. We, the readers, have to make the decision for ourselves. Is this family really cursed? Are they really victims of the fuku? Could this zafa save them? Or is this just the well-written and engaging story of a string of coincidences that led to different members of the same family experiencing different tragedies at different stages in their life, as told by a narrator that has interpreted these events as moments of cosmic significance?