Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Diaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. 2007. Riverhead Books, 2008.

Summary of Work
Yunior, the late boyfriend of Lola de León, narrates the story of Lola’s brother Oscar, who is the victim of what Yunior calls a fukú, a curse of death or destruction in the New World. He states that the whole curse is connected directly with the Trujillo regime, particularly Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina. The only way to ward of the curse is to create a zafa, and Yunior, believing the curse has passed to him, wants his storytelling to be his zafa.

When Oscar was little, his family lived in new Jersey, and they were very proud of their beautiful son. He had two girlfriends, a true Dominican boy, but soon the threesome falls apart. From then on, Oscar cannot get a girlfriend, and he descends into eating and becomes morbidly obese. He has two friends, but even they leave him out when they get girlfriends. Despite his sister Lola and his Uncle Rudolfo trying to get him to lose more weight and participate in masculine activities so he can get a girlfriend, Oscar decides to focus on science fiction and writing, and he goes to Santo Domingo to be with his Nena Inca for a time.

When he gets home from his visit, he meets Ana Obregón, a smart girl in his SAT prep class. He immediately falls in love, but they never date. They grow to be good friends, but when her boyfriend Manny gets back from the Army, their relationship ends. Oscar gets into Rutgers, and he hopes that he will be able to turn his life around when he is in college. However, he quickly finds out that since he didn’t change anything about himself, life is still miserable and he is still a loser.

The story then turns to Lola’s past, and she narrates. Lola always felt controlled by her mother and then always made a point to find ways to be defiant, but after her mother Belicia is diagnosed with cancer, Lola feels powerless. To regain a feeling of power, she cuts off her hair and she runs away to be with her boyfriend Aldo, and she loses her virginity to him. She finds that living with Aldo and his father is not any better than her previous situation, and when she calls Oscar to meet with him, he brings the entire family. She is caught, and she is forced to go to Santo Domingo and live with La Inca. There, she is able to feel free and happy after awhile, and she joins the high school track team and starts dating someone. She also gets to learn about her family’s past, and this helps her to find some relief from the bruja feeling that she regularly encounters.

Yunior discusses the history of the de León family, starting with Belicia. La Inca took Beli in after having lived a terrible life with an adoptive family. La Inca strives to give her a better life than what she had experienced as a child, and sends her to a private school. Her behavior causes all the children to be afraid of her, and Beli makes no friends. However, when she becomes a teenager, she starts to develop a body that men go crazy for. She decides that she will use this as a way to attract attention from her crush Jack Pujols, and they have sex in a broom closet and get caught. It comes out that Pujols is already engaged to a girl from a wealthy family, and Beli is crushed when Pujols is sent to the army. Pujols was also closely connected to the Trujillo regime, placing her in a dangerous spot even if she didn’t realize it.

After that affair, she refuses to go to school and she gets a job as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant. Beli has a couple of men interested in her at that time, but she doesn’t get involved with either of them. Then, out dancing one night, Beli meets the Gangster, another person with direct contact to Trujillo and influence in his regime. She falls in love with him and becomes pregnant, but because the Gangster is married to Trujillo’s sister and Beli is only the mistress, the pregnancy causes his wife to take revenge by beating her near to death and causing a miscarriage. Nearly dead in the cane field she was beaten in, Beli sees a Mongoose with lion’s eyes and it leads her out to the road. When she gets well enough to travel, La Inca sends her to New York City, knowing that if Beli stays, she will most likely be killed by the Trujillos. On the airplane, she meets the man who will be the father of her children.

While at Rutgers, Oscar has tried to commit suicide, and Lola ask Yunior to look after him while at college, and he shares a dorm room with him. At first he has little interest in Oscar because he is far too busy with dating multiple women, but when his girlfriend dumps him over infidelity, he puts a lot of effort into helping Oscar. At first Oscar tries to work out and do what Yunior suggests so he can get fit and get a girlfriend, but because he is constantly made fun of, he quits. Yunior is angry and leaves Oscar alone. But then Oscar falls inlove with a Puerto Rican girl, and they start spending a lot of time together. But when she finds a boyfriend, she stops spending time with her. Oscar gets so angry that he rips things off her walls and yells at her for leaving him, and then he tries to commit suicide again by jumping off a bridge onto the freeway. However, he is saved by the same Golden Mongoose that his mother saw, and he hits the median of the road rather than the road itself. The next year, Yunior leaves, but after he starts dating Lola, he moves back in with Oscar for the Spring semester. Lola left Santo Domingo and in her pain over having to leave, broke contact with her boyfriend and all friends, slept with an older man for $2000, and then when her boyfriend died in an accident, gave the money to his family before she left.

Yunior then tells the story of Abelard Luis Cabral, Belicia’s father. He was a successful doctor, and he had two daughters with his wife. They are rich and socialize with the Trujillos. But when his oldest daughter Jacquelyn hits puberty and becomes a beautiful woman, Abelard worries that Trujillo will want to sleep with her, as he had done that with many other girls from prominent families. He decides they will stop going to parties and social occasions, at least leaving Jacquelyn behind. His wife, his mistress, and his friend all give their opinions, but he doesn’t act on them. Then, when Trujillo asks Abelard to bring Jacquelyn to a party and Abelard outright disobeys the order, Trujillo has Abelard arrested for speaking ill of him. Abelard is sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison, and it is there that he finds out that his wife is pregnant with another daughter. When Beli is born, her mother dies in an accident and she is adopted by her mother’s relatives, only to then be sent to be a slave to another family. Her two other sisters die mysteriously, and her father dies in prison. La Inca, Abelard’s sister, finds Beli living in a chicken coop with a horrible burn on her back, given to her when she disobeyed an order.

All of the de León family goes to visit La Inca in La Capital, and Oscar loves it. He stays a month longer than the rest of his family, and he falls in love with a prostitute. He is good friends with her but never gets to have sex with her, just like all his other relationships. Ybón, the prostitute, has a boyfriend, the head of the police force. When he gets pulled over with Ybón drunk in the car one night, Ybón kisses him in front of her boyfriend; he takes Oscar to a cane field and nearly beats him to death. When Oscar is healing, Ybón, who had been beaten as well, tells him that she will be marrying the Captain, and Beli books a flight for Oscar so he can get out of Santo Domingo. However, when Oscar gets back, he borrows money from Yunior and flies back to the Dominican Republic. He spends another month pursuing Ybón, and he also does research about his family and the Trujillos and writes a book about it. he sends the manuscript off before he is murdered in a cane field by the Captain’s men.

Yunior and Lola break up after Oscar dies, and within a year Beli also dies of cancer. Nearly a year after Oscar’s death, Lola receives a package. It contains a manuscript and a letter: the manuscript is a space opera, and the letter tells Lola that she should expect another manuscript in the mail that will detail how to rid the family of the fukú that forever haunts them. However, the package never arrives in the mail. For Yunior, the only bright note in the end of Oscar’s long and sad life is that he eventually sleeps with Ybón and finally gets the romantic relationship he always wanted before he died.

Brief Note on Themes
This work is a diasporic novel and a work of magical realism. Díaz mixes US pop culture with Latin American pop culture, creating a world that is mixed culturally and through genre: things that might happen only in the world of fiction and pop culture, such as the mongoose episodes, make their way into reality, blurring the line between reality and the mystical, a perfect example of magical realism. Díaz also explicitly references works such as Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is a work of magical realism. The characters in Díaz’s novel also parallel those in Márquez’s novel, with the children not being able to break free from the curses of the parents. Storytelling to rebuild the past plays a large part of the magical realism, as Yunior makes up events that he does not have information for. It also allows for a larger discussion of the terror of the Trujillo regime during its years of power in the Dominican Republic.

Human sexuality, particularly sexual roles in Dominican culture, runs throughout the book. Dominican men are supposed to be hypermasculine, sleeping with many women and being unfaithful to their wives, always having a mistress or another woman to run after. Trujillo, in a place of power, becomes the most virile Dominican man, sleeping with the most beautiful women in the country whenever he wants to. Women are then characterized as objects of sexual desire, but their sexuality is also a freeing power for them, as when they use their sexuality to defy the societal expectation and standard, they gain freedom and agency. Similarly, love and family life play a large part of this story: love for people seems to bring about the violence of the curse, and the two seem to regularly work against each other, although it might also be argued that it is the combination of the two things that leads to a zafa to ward off the family curse by the end of the novel.

The novel itself, representing diaspora, shows the embodiment of immigration: Belicia is the first generation, Beli doubly so because she is first placed in a school where she doesn’t fit in with the culture, and then again when she moves to New York City and must remake herself again. She is outside of her home country, and has escaped from death, and yet has lost a space to belong. Similarly, Oscar is an outsider because he does not fit cultural standards from either culture he belongs to, US or Dominican culture. He stands in a liminal space between cultures and also stands as an intermediary between family members, and he regularly fails at achieving any success in either sphere. Lola experiences similar troubles, especially as she is torn from the US, only to not long later be torn from the Dominican Republic, where she feels much more at home, back to the US, where she feels less connected to an identity or culture.

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Houghton Mifflin Co, 1990.

Summary of Work
This novel is a collection of interconnected short stories about Alpha company’s time in the Vietnam War. The title of the work is indicative of one of the main things discussed throughout the work: the things that soldiers carry with them through and after wartime. Many of these things are considered lucky or are memories of home. Others are memories and scars from the war and experiences before and after the war that these men have to carry for the rest of their lives. In the first story, O’Brien details the death of Ted Lavender, a PFC who is always taking tranquilizers in order to deal with the horrors of war that he sees. He is going to the bathroom when he is shot through the head. The head of the company, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, blames himself for Lavender’s death because he had been distracted thinking about his girlfriend and her letters and pictures. He burns her letters and pictures in an attempt to never be distracted again. The love he had for her is unreciprocated, and yet he can never get over her or the guilt of Lavender’s death.

The next short story details O’Brien’s experience of receiving his draft notice and running away to the Canadian border, considering skipping out on a war he does not support or want to fight. However, he can’t immediately bring himself to cross, so he helps the owner of a lodge. When they go fishing one evening, the lodge owner lets the boat drift to the Canadian shore, and O’Brien breaks down over the realization that he is not able to leave, too afraid of what other people think and say than even he is of getting injured or dying in the war. He goes back home and then to Vietnam.

In the short story “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien indicates that many times the stories that are told are not true, but they are in the fact that the feeling of the war and situations are conveyed in them. He describes several stories that may or may not be true, but says that the real truth of a story depends on if you need to ask that question or not. He also tells of Curt Lemon’s death, who dies, blown into many pieces, as he steps on a rigged landmine. Rat Kiley, Lemon’s closest friend, loses it after having to see him in pieces, and when they find a baby water buffalo, he shoots it time and time again, keeping it alive as long as possible to feel the pain, until it absolutely dies from too many bullet wounds. No one stops him because of that. He also at one point killed Ted Lavender’s puppy he had saved and nurtured back to health; Kiley strapped it to a bomb. Kiley is the medic, and deals with so much death and destruction that it drives him crazy, and he later shoots himself in the foot to get out of the war.

A “True War Story” that Rat Kiley told was the story of a man who brought a woman to the war so he could be with her. She was just out of high school and things went well until she started learning how to be a soldier and went out with the Green Berets. She slowly started going out on missions and then became one with the land and even the Greenies were worried about her or unable to connect. Despite the young soldier’s attempts to reel her in and get her to go home, she would not go. He goes to the tent and finds her with a necklace of human tongues around her neck, and one night not much later she disappears into the bush forever. Since the story ending does not please all the soldiers, he makes up the ending as that she is always living on the land, becoming part of the land, only seen every now and then, but never brought back to civilization.

In another story, two friends in Alpha Company make a pact to kill the other if they are mortally wounded, and when one of them has his foot blown off by a landmine, he realizes that he doesn’t want to die and begs his friend not to kill him. His friend complies to his request, but feels guilty about it and is relieved when he finds out that his friend died in transport to medical help. O’Brien also looks back, forty years after the fact, at the time he killed a man on the road. He had a grenade and threw it before the man could ever see him. He couldn’t leave the body and just stared at the face. Kiowa, the Native American in the company, stays with him to help him process but makes sure he eventually gets up and leaves. When O’Brien’s daughter asks him if he’s ever killed anyone, he lies and says he hasn’t. He hopes he’ll get the chance to set matters right one day and tell her the truth if she ever asks again.

Kiowa’s death is in a shit field. They were camping in the evening and Norman Bowker and Kiowa were looking at a picture of Bowker’s girlfriend when gunfire started. They were already in trouble, sitting in the shit field and the river rising and creating a sinkhole of shit and mud and dirty water, and with the gunfire raining down on them, Kiowa got hit and then his body sunk in the mud and shit and Bowker could not get him out. Bowker, years after the war, still feels guilty about it and he relays the story to himself over and over as he drives around a lake in his hometown. Unable to rid himself of the guilt over Kiowa’s death, Bowker kills himself in a locker room a few years after coming home. The book also describes the process of looking for Kiowa’s body, as Cross refused to let him stay MIA. They found his body eventually, and had to dig it out. Kiowa’s effects were also found, particularly his moccasins and his brand new, ornate Bible his father had given him before he left for the war. O’Brien has the moccasins when he goes back to Vietnam over forty years later, and he places them in the field where Kiowa died to honor him and remember him.

O’Brien also remembers getting shot twice: the first time Kiley was there to clean him up and help him, and there were no problems; the second time, it was a new medic and the guy nearly let him die of shock and the wound got gangrene because of him. While in the hospital and in his new station, he dreamed of getting back at the man. And when he came into the base, O’Brien recruited another man to help him get him back. Even after the medic apologizes, O’Brien can’t get past it and continues on with his revenge plan. They scare him all through the night with sounds and flares, and in the final moments of dawn they raise a flour bag to scare him. O’Brien feels satisfied and then bad about what he’s done about halfway through the plan. After the end, the man calls out his name and the next morning they make peace. While at this base O’Brien also remembers Curt Lemon, who was so afraid of the dentist he fainted and then in order to save face, came to the dentist in the middle of the night and had him pull a perfectly good tooth in order to prove his bravery.

O’Brien also discusses his childhood, saying that the reason he entered the war was the same reason he’s always done what he’s done: he always needed to be loved, and feared being called a coward. He describes his childhood love, Linda, who died of a brain tumor at age 9. He recalls mentioning her hat when they went to the movies, and how he wasn’t brave enough to stop a bully from tearing the hat from her head and revealing her bald head and stitches one day. He walked her home after, but always regretted not doing anything. He discusses how many times men aren’t as brave as they think that they are and that when it comes to life and especially war, people do terrible things and it becomes difficult to tell the difference between right and wrong. The only way to get through these tragic moments of realization, at least for O’Brien, is to tell stories about them.

Brief Note on Themes
The main theme running throughout this work is the horrors of war, particularly the Vietnam War, and the scars that the immorality of war leave on the men who fight. Truth and morals are discussed, as many of the characters deal with death in uncharacteristic or mocking ways in order to process or deal with the atrocities they see and the atrocities they commit. For instance, Ted Lavender is never considered dead, but on the most mellow trip the war has ever given him. The power of stories is also a large part of this, as it is the stories that these men tell themselves after the war that determine their ability to cope and survive or to die. Personal responsibility for a person’s actions is questioned; if a person is just following orders or trying to save themselves in the war, are their actions immoral or unjust or wrong? The blurring of those boundaries in wartime is a feature of this work, even as O’Brien tries to grapple with the fact that there are moral pillars determining the correctness of their actions during the war. This work is also semi-autobiographical, as Tim O’Brien places himself as a main character in this story and tells the stories of his time as a soldier, simply changing names and some stories as he tells them. He discusses this in a New York Times piece that he wrote in the early 2000s about his return trip to Vietnam and his struggle to deal with the atrocities of the war and the damage it did to the people he left behind in the country as he went home.