How ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ Changed the Future of American Literature

Art by Alan López for Remezcla

When The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao  Junot Díaz’s coming-to-America and coming-of-age saga first came out in 2007 – it took the literary world by storm. The story itself was one we’d hardly seen, especially in the form of a novel. Over the course of 352 pages, Díaz weaved the tale of Oscar, a “disastrously overweight ghetto nerd” longing for a transcendental love, layered over the story of a hereditary curse, and folded into the history of the Dominican Republic. These storylines were all frosted with references to comic books, anime, sci-fi/fantasy classics an inch thick, and served up by a regretful, wise-cracking narrator (slash minor character) in the form of Díaz’s avatar, Yunior. This groundbreaking novel changed the literary landscape and paved the way for a younger generation of writers.

Michiko Kakutani, the former New York Times’ chief book critic, called the work an original that could “only be described as Mario Vargas Llosa meets Star Trek meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West,” dropping names of classics, and mad respected modern writers all in one go. Other reviewers called it “one of the best first novels of recent decades,” “a smorgasbord of languages and a celebration of their diverse powers of meaning,” and “a massive, heaving, sparking tragicomedy.” It won 2007’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critic’s Circle awards, made the BBC’s 2015 “Best Novel of the Century So Far” list, and garnered its author a MacArthur Fellowship, better known as a “genius award.”

So what made Oscar Wao so great? In the vast number of articles and reviews online – from the MacArthur committee to the vast majority of Goodreads reviewers – everyone mentioned one thing: the voice. Whether absolutely infuriated by the mix of references and Spanish, or absolutely entranced by it, Díaz’s voice is an inescapable feature of Oscar Wao. This is true regardless of whether Díaz pulled from “high” culture and used words like “vertiginous” and “indefatigable” and made references to the curse of the House of Atreus (subject of the ancient Greek play cycle The Oresteia) or borrowed from “low” culture and used curse words, Spanglish, and called back to pop culture staples like the X-Men.

The differences between “high” and “low” culture are totally arbitrary. But for many, these lines exist, though they’re beginning to shift. The idea of “high” culture is that in a society where being “well-educated” means understanding a lot about dead white dudes, understanding the curse of the House of Atreus (which started because one guy fed another his own son) is seen as way more valuable or important than understanding the X-Men (a comic that uses its forms to discuss integration vs. separatism). One isn’t inherently better than the other, although the terms “high” and “low” certainly don’t do anything to push back on that. Díaz fucks with these distinctions and the idea of ranking knowledge by putting it all on an even playing field.

In an interview with The Guardian, Díaz said that he was going for a sort of creolization, that is, a blending of forms and languages. This creolization spreads across multiple dimensions of the book — the Spanglish that peppers it, the wide array of references, and deeply, the structure of the story itself. Oscar Wao is an epic by another name.

Epic poems – in the style of Homer and the Greeks – tell the story of a hero and his quest, usually against a backdrop of grandest history. Think Odysseus trying to get back home to his wife after the Trojan War, or Frodo attempting to reach Mount Doom to destroy the Ring. Back in the olden days, Homer would pick up his walking stick and wander from city to city, reciting his stories to listening crowds, adding in embellishments for the home crowd — maybe a mention of a distant relative (literally) killing it at Troy, or Odysseus’ stop at a nearby city. Going back to the idea of “high” and “low” cultures: nobody loves the ancient Greeks like the academy, and Homer is considered the OG storyteller of Western Culture (massive scare quotes around that whole sentence, you guys).

So with Oscar Wao, we have our hero, a belittled supernerd, on a quest for His Great Love, against the backdrop of post-diaspora Jersey and post-Trujillato Santo Domingo, all spun for us by our own Homer, Yunior. These are all things academia has not, historically, given two shits about: the Dominican Republic, New Jersey, comics nerds. Herein lies the genius of Junot Díaz.

And nowhere can you see this more than in his choice of epigraphs — particularly the two quotes that open the book. The first, a quote from the Fantastic Four: “Of what import are brief, nameless lives . . . to Galactus?” The second, a passage from a Caribbean remix of the Odyssey called “The Schooner Flight” by Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott that ends: “I have Dutch, ni**er, and English in me, and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.”

Where does this mix of established cultural references and callouts to subcultures (or non-white cultures) get us? A book only Díaz could have written. If you take the full sum of references in footnotes, Oscar’s speech, Yunior’s asides, they span an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Dominican history, fantasy and sci-fi lore around the 1970s and 80s, New Jersey geography, MLA conventions, music, myths and legends from around the world, and a deep and abiding love for slang, both English and Spanish. The end result being that everyone who picks up this book is going to wind up at least a little alienated, if not by the Spanish, then by the sci-fi. Every reader, like Oscar at high school, is on the outside looking in.

And this is the enduring legacy of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, 10 years on. Because it’s a story that, as Yunior says, gets “its fingers around your throat,” because it’s about being on the outside that makes you feel like you’re on the outside, because it’s still a story that hits deep in the guts even if you don’t know your bachata from your Batman, because of all this, Oscar Wao blew open the publishing game.

There’s a quote floating around that’s pretty commonly attributed to Junot Diaz: “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one-third elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and White people think we’re taking over.” However, attributing it to him is difficult. But is is the kind of thing you expect from Díaz, who has talked frequently about what lengths the reader is prepared to go with the author,  to what extent they are comfortable in their alienation or they close the book. Oscar Wao, with its riot of references and multi-lingual approach, gives us permission to stay unsure, to get comfortable in our lack of understanding, while giving us enough to keep us hooked.

And in an industry where #publishingsowhite, where only certain stories about people of color and Latinos are told over and over, a book like Oscar Wao, that blows the expected stories up, that takes risks, makes publishing other books like it so much easier. Publishers love winning Pulitzers. They love having books stay on The New York Times paperback bestseller list for eight months straight. They love getting interviews on NPR’s Fresh Air and all that stuff happens way less often than you’d expect. Oscar Wao made it easy for them to love unexpected books, weird books by authors who aren’t David Foster Wallace or Jonathan Safran Foer, made it possible for us to now have writers like Valeria Luiselli or Alvaro Enrigue or Samanta Schweblin. And best of all, it made it so that a ghetto nerd, wandering through a library, finds his own story set out on a page, and decides to do the same.