Friday, February 4, 2011

Book Club: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

For days I put off doing writing this. I read through lots of reviews of the book and just didn't know what do say. Then I realized that I don't need write a review. This is book club. All I have to do is tell you what I think.

Book club looked at several different themes; Footnotes, Body Image and Description, Science Fiction and Magic, Narrator and voice, Cool vs. Nerdy, Knowing the beginning from the End, Acceptance vs. Trying to change others.

And I'm adding Fuku and zafa.

I'm not going to make you read all my thoughts on all the themes. Just one.

Fuku and zafa.
The hero of this book is a 300-lb Dominican American who hasn't had success with the ladies since he was in grade school. Oscar's story actually starts years before he was even born with the rise of Trujillo ("the most dictating dictator to ever dictate"). The family has a fuku (curse) put on them when the father (Oscar's grandfather) offends Trujillo by not letting him have the oldest daughter as his personal sex slave. Now zafa. Zafa is the counter spell, the cure, the good luck.

There you have your background.

Most of the story focuses on Oscar getting laid and everybody seems to think that that would be the zafa that the family needs. As the title would suggest Oscar is killed at the end of the book (all in the persuit of love). Months after he is killed a letter arrives home telling about a trip that he and his love took for a weekend away where he actually got some action. Here is what the narrator tells us about the letter, "what really got him was not the bam-bam-bam of sex--it was the little intimacies that he'd never in his whole life anticipate, like combing her hair or getting her underwear off the line or watching her walk naked to the bathroom or the way she would suddenly sit on his pan and put her face into her neck.....He wrote: So this is what everybody's always talking about! Diablo! If only I'd known. The beauty! The beauty!"

The idea that's been rolling around in my head is how that works in my life too. Often I think that my own Zafa will be one thing and when it comes things will be made better, or made whole or will be made to be what I want them to be. And often that thing doesn't come. Then, months or weeks later when I look back at it, something else came that was so much more lovely and wonderful. We loved our old neighborhood and the friends we made there and we were amazed to find the the best friends that we had there weren't the familes our age but rather the amazing people we worked with in our religious congregation (who happened to be either 5-years old or 18-years old.)

I love that thought. That our own zafa may not be what we expect but God or the Universe or whatever you want to call it will provide us with something so much more wonderful.

So there you go. Book Club. Done.


  1. Disclaimer--I read this book several years back and it has been in and out of my thought since. However, my plan was to reread or skim it in preparation for this book club, but it's still at the bottom of last week's library pile. So here are my thoughts based on distant memories and thoughts triggered by Sallee's post.

    Trujillo's fuku curse seems the set up in this book. Trujillo’s appetite for women is voracious and violent. The goal is sex, plain and simple. It is telling then that family thinks a simple sexual encounter will throw the curse off, but love is what trumps it. This seems to be a common theme in Trujillo tales-- Julia Alverez’s In the Time of the Butterflies immediately comes to mind—and as corny as it sounds, we all know it is not—sex is not love, and love trumps everything. Even the fact that his loved one ends up being a somewhat washed out prostitute seems to indicate this theme. She certainly would know the difference.
    "This is intimacy: the trading of stories in the dark"--Elizabeth Gilbert

    "To be fully seen by somebody, then, and be loved anyhow - this is a human offering that can border on miraculous."--Elizabeth Gilbert (Can you tell that I just finished reading her book Committed? Sorry.)

    It reminds me of a story my friend Marlene once told me. She went to some summer conference/camp for brainiacs and prodigies the break between high school and her first semester of university. As an ice breaker, the gifted youngsters had to go around the room and say the most important thing they’d accomplished so far (pretentious, no?!). One had published a book of poetry, another had conducted important research with a well-known professor, another had won a prestigious music competition, and round and round they went. Finally a boy from Dublin had his turn. He simply and quietly explained that once he had loved someone and that person had loved him back. The competition was over. I imagine Oscar’s letter had the same effect. Game over. Actually it never was a game. So the fuku curse (beyond being funny to my seventh-grade-boy sense of humor and a nod to Ishmael Reed’s literary word play) plays out on many levels, thumbing its nose at Trujillo, at a family that seems to put sex (pride and violence)at the end of the finish line (nerd or not), and then the gesture right back to all of them as Zafa comes.

    As I think of Oscar’s character, a terrible feeling wells up inside me. He’s such a lovely character, because I found myself relating to him at the same time I am repulsed. The repulsion is because he’s almost set up like a mirror to reflect our most base jr. high fears of being unwanted, unloved, and rawly vulnerable. He is the delicate and destroyed part of his family and culture’s history. Perhaps this is why the payoff of the letter at the end of the book is so huge; it’s multiplied by a couple generations. Yet, it’s more than just a nice underdog (Rudy) story. It’s a glimpse into what is wonderous (and often overlooked) in even the most broken of people. (I could get churchy here, but I won’t)

    As I look again at the questions Sallee posed, I think of how “cool vs. nerdy” and beautiful vs. ugly seem to work in this book. Instead of being linear opposites, they seem to overlap and swap places. The coolest kids come off as a joke. The beautiful girls become marred by their own actions. And the nerdy and ugly Oscar is painfully beautiful at times.

    Yikes, there’s so much more to talk/write about, but the length of this comment is already to blow up a phone/internet line somewhere, so I’ll stop. Plus, my kids need lunch.

  2. Lisa, this is so great. I felt the same way about Oscar. I loved him but he repulsed me in the ways he reminded me of me. It was sort of like watching a train wreck and I couldn't look away.

    I also think I would have come up with your thought of the nerdy/cool, ugly/beautiful themes of the book not being linear. How brilliant. They do overlap and swap places (which is what they do in real life too)

  3. so you liked it? I saw him read at Knox (not from this book) and was seriously disgusted. I can't say I have much desire to read anything of his. You make me mildly interested, but I probably won't be running to pull it off the shelf.

    I do want to read Little B. Have you read that? There is an electronic version downloadable at the Muncie library--it's there book club choice--which for some reason is during spreak break when I will be in Chicago? Want to read it with me?

  4. Melissa, I can imagine that he could be disgusting in person. There were descriptions that were pretty gross but I just loved the characters so much. Overall I would say it's worth it. Let's put Little B on the list. I'm picking up tinkers from the Library tomorrow but I'll reserve Little B while I'm there.