By Claire Newfeld
The title The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is rather deceiving and ironic. The book narrates the life of not only Oscar Wao, but also members of his family, including his mother, sister, and grandfather. Adding to the irony, none of their lives appear to be “wondrous.” In fact, the primary narrator, Oscar’s college roommate Yunior, presents them as being ridden with misfortune. He describes in great detail the suffering of Oscar’s grandfather Abelard and his mother Belicia under the reign of the dictator Trujillo, and the unlucky streak Oscar himself faces in many aspects of his life.
In addition to the Cabral/de Leon family’s suffering, the book narrates the behaviors of both major and minor characters. As portrayed by Yunior, both the male and female characters exhibit behaviors that, at times, cause pain or somehow negatively affect another party. When these two aspects of the story–the suffering of characters and the behavior of characters–are combined, there appears to be a connection between the two. The characters in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao use supernatural and misogynistic elements of their culture as excuses to diminish personal responsibility for bad situations and behaviors. They largely blame bad situations not on specific perpetrators, but on a mysterious supernatural force called the fuku, or Zafa, which features prominently in Dominican folklore. The fuku is thought to be a “curse or a doom of some kind” (Diaz 1) that would be cast upon any individual or family who plotted against or even just did not respect the Dominican dictator Trujillo. Fuku is widely accepted among Dominicans as a primary cause of misfortune. A belief in the fuku is a strong element of a Dominican upbringing. The misogynistic behaviors that many characters exhibit also seem to be attributed to their Dominican upbringing. The text thus suggests that using these types of excuses for bad behaviors and situations is a part of Dominican culture, at least as portrayed in this novel. The fact that the characters frequently reference elements of their culture as excuses in bad situations is a testament to how closely the characters identify with these negative elements.
One of the ways in which this manifests in the text is Yunior’s blaming of the misfortune of the Cabral family on fuku or Zafa rather than acknowledging the real cause: the dictator Trujillo and his associates. By passing off culpability on a supernatural force, it diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrator. The fuku placed on Oscar’s family starts with Abelard, his grandfather, who is picked up by the Secret Police and jailed for the crime of slander against El Jefe. Yunior narrates, “Most of the folks you speak to prefer the story with a supernatural twist. They believe that not only did Trujillo want Abelard’s daughter, but when he couldn’t snatch her, out of spite he put a fuku on the family’s ass. Which is why all the terrible shit that happened happened” (Diaz 243). The fact that “most of the folks” would blame the suffering of the Cabral family on the fuku shows that this is a common belief among Dominicans in the story. However, using the fuku as an explanation diminishes the responsibility that should be placed on the real causes of Abelard’s and his family’s suffering. Yunior explains later that one of the reasons Abelard was picked up by the Secret Police in the first place is because Marcus, the “certain trusted neighbor” (Diaz 247) whom Abelard confided in about the precautions he was taking to hide his beautiful daughter that Trujillo wanted to rape, had testified against him as a witness in Abelard’s slander trial. Blaming the fuku makes it seem like Marcus is not as responsible for putting Abelard in jail, when it is really almost entirely his fault. It also strips Trujillo of culpability. While he is blamed for cursing the family with the fuku, this is not really what he did wrong. His real wrongdoing was leading a regime that oppressed his own citizens, with laws that allowed Abelard to be wrongfully imprisoned. Blaming an unrealistic cause masks the true culpability of those who were more concretely involved.
Yunior also blames the fuku even when Trujillo is not the direct perpetrator of something bad happening to a member of the de Leon family. The prime example is Oscar getting beaten and eventually killed by Gorilla Grod and Solomon Grundy. Yunior says that when they kidnap Oscar, he sees “a lone man sitting in his rocking chair out in front of his ruined house and for a moment Oscar could have sworn the dude had no face” (Diaz 298). Oscar also swears that during the beating, he “was being beaten by three men, not two, that the faceless man from in front of the colmado was joining them” (Diaz 299). The man with no face appears many times in the book, generally whenever something terrible is about to happen. He seems to be the physical manifestation of the fuku that lurks and causes great pain for the subjects of the curse. The frequent reoccurrence of the faceless man, especially in Oscar’s story, suggests that Yunior still believes that it is the fuku that is responsible for Oscar’s suffering. It also suggests that it is just Oscar’s bad luck that leads him to be beaten rather than putting full fault on the actual men who beat him. Even if the fuku is real and Oscar is in fact cursed, Solomon Grundy and Gorilla Grod are still entirely guilty for the crime they committed, and should be recognized as such. Attributing the crime to a distant being only vindicates them of that responsibility .
Because the fuku is so integrated in Dominican culture as portrayed in the novel, Yunior’s frequent appeals to it as an explanation show that it is common for him to reference cultural elements to diminish personal culpability. In addition to using supernatural elements of the culture as explanations for crimes that victimize the characters, Yunior also passes off several characters’ misogynistic behaviors as an inherent part of Dominican culture. The maliciousness of these behaviors is downplayed because of its cultural prevalence. This most prominently exhibits itself in the relationships between men and women portrayed in the text. First, Dominican culture expects and encourages men to become “players,” so to speak, and try to seduce as many beautiful women as possible. Yunior narrates that when Oscar was a young boy, Oscar had many girlfriends and did not yet have the problems with women that torment him later in life. He calls young Oscar “something of a Casanova” and comments that “in those days he was (still) a ‘normal’ Dominican boy raised in a ‘typical’ Dominican family, his nascent pimp-liness was encouraged by blood and friends alike” (Diaz 11). Yunior further explains, “During parties—and there were many parties in those long ago seventies days…some drunk relative inevitably pushed Oscar onto some little girl and then everyone would howl as boy and girl approximated the hip-motism of the adults” (Diaz 11-12). By calling Oscar in his younger state as a player a “normal Dominican boy,” Yunior implies that it is normal for a Dominican man to be a player and pursue women lustfully. Moreover, the fact that Oscar was raised in a family described as “typical” among Dominicans suggests that he has the idea that he is supposed to get as many beautiful girls as possible instilled in him by tenants that his family has taught him. This is further evidenced by the quote in which the adult relatives observe and laugh while they push young Oscar into another little girl. Yunior’s description of Oscar’s childhood experiences with girls show that Dominican culture, as portrayed in the novel, expects and encourages men to fill a “player” type of role and pursue as many women as they can.
In addition to this, the text also suggests that men are supposed to beat up women when they do not submit to them or when they “cheat” on them. Cheating could be something as minute as looking at another man for “too long.” When Oscar is young, he has two girlfriends. When one of them finds out about the other and gives Oscar an ultimatum to choose between them, Oscar cries to his mother about the situation. His mother “threw him to the floor. Dale un galletazo, she panted, then see if the little puta respects you” (Diaz 14, italics added). Oscar’s mother tells him to physically hurt the girl until she submits to him. The fact that Oscar’s mother is teaching this to a seven-year-old boy shows that it is completely normal in this version of Dominican culture for a man to harm a woman who disrespects his authority over her. Additionally, her punitive way of teaching him this, by throwing him on the floor, suggests that this is not something she should have to teach him; it is something he should have known and should be punished for not knowing. If he should have known this principle, it must be something so ingrained in Dominican culture that a seven-year-old can ascertain it. Yunior goes on to say that Oscar decides not to hurt his girlfriend, because “he didn’t have no kind of father to show him the masculine ropes, he simply lacked all aggressive and martial tendencies” (Diaz 15). Yunior links a masculine father to having aggressive tendencies, because the statement implies that Oscar could have been taught to hurt the girl by a strong masculine figure such as a father. This further adds to the Dominican idea that men are allowed to physically hurt their women.
These two principles of Diaz’s conception of Dominican culture, men as players and woman-beaters, serve as a backdrop to the story that downplays the baseness of the bad behaviors that many characters exhibit. One example is Abelard. Yunior devotes an entire paragraph to describing how amazing Abelard’s wife Socorro is, especially her beauty. He then casually mentions Abelard’s mistress Lydia and gives no explanation for why Abelard would need or want a mistress. He even goes so far as to call Lydia Abelard’s “number-one lover” (Diaz 220). Yunior mentioning Lydia so casually does not allow the reader to dwell on the harmful effect Abelard’s adultery would have on his wife. While Yunior does not directly attribute Abelard’s behavior to a Dominican upbringing, the fact that it is such a major part of the story that men are expected to be players makes it seem as though Abelard himself is not as much at fault for his behavior. He is not the one making the bad decisions; it is his culture and indoctrination.
Another character that this principle applies to is Yunior himself. He is a massive player and spends most of college only caring about being with women. He says, “So what happens at the beginning of October? What always happens to playboys like me. I got bopped” (Diaz 175). One of the girls he was with finds out he is cheating on her with several others and reacts aggressively. He then says, “What I should have done was check myself into Bootie-Rehab. But if you thought I was going to do that, then you don’t know Dominican men” (Diaz 175). Here Yunior directly attributes his own bad behavior to his culture. He does not reflect on his own actions and the pain they may cause the girls he is sleeping with, and he continues to sleep around until after he gets married much later in life.
Yunior uses two explanations, both derived from Dominican culture, for bad situations and behaviors that diminish personal responsibility for those at fault. He blames the fuku for the many misfortunes that Oscar’s family has suffered, and passes off bad behaviors as being part of a Dominican upbringing. Both of these explanations contribute to the portrayal of Dominican culture as a whole in the novel. Yunior says that Dominicans strongly believe in the fuku and use it when telling stories of misfortune. The fact that Dominican men still act as players and pursue women show how strongly they identify these negative aspects of Dominican culture.
What conclusions can be drawn from this? The text suggests that Dominicans identify so strongly with their culture that they often let it dictate how they act, use it as an excuse for acting badly, or provide unrealistic explanations for bad circumstances. Even Yunior and other Dominicans who live in the United States continue to identify with their home country. Through a somewhat negative portrayal of the culture, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao shows how much a cultural identity can define a character’s perception of events, actions, and life in general.