The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Díaz

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What is a good argument that could be used in an essay to describe the impact of fuku and what Junot Diaz is saying about it in this novel?

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According to Yunior, the narrator of much of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the whole story itself is an account of fuku, the curse that has plagued the De Leon and Cabral families for so many years. In telling the story, Yunior believes that he is invoking the power of zafa, a supernatural force that is somehow meant to ward off the destructive counterforce of fuku.

The concept of fuku, or to give it its full name, fuku americanus, is intimately linked not just to misfortune in general but specifically to misfortune that leads to violence. It is apparently a traditional element in Dominican folklore, one that conveys a sense of fatalism among those who fall under its unbreakable spell. Throughout the story, this supernatural understanding of cosmic fate manifests itself not just in relation to the heritage of violence bequeathed by the Trujillo regime but in specific acts of violence carried out by individuals.

We see this point illustrated most strongly by the effect that fuku has upon Oscar. His vivid imagination, combined with his cultural background, encourages him to believe that he is cursed to die a virgin as he persistently fails to attract girls. After one particularly humiliating rebuff from a girl at college, he attempts suicide, an act of violence against the self. A subsequent attempt by Oscar to take his own life by jumping from a bridge merely serves to emphasize the tight, unrelenting grip that fuku appears to have upon him. Then, finally and tragically, there is the brutal beating and eventual death that Oscar receives at the hands of Solomon Grundy and Gorilla Grod.

But in both these examples, it might be helpful to look at fuku not so much as a supernatural concept but more as a thoroughly natural one. For in a sense, Oscar finds himself trapped by his cultural heritage, one that imposes upon him certain expectations of how a Dominican male should behave. His failed attempts at finding love, for example, are really more concerned with proving his machismo than expressing a genuine desire to settle down with the right girl.

Moreover, the imposition of cultural norms lurking behind the whole notion of fuku encourages Oscar not to take responsibility for his own destructive actions. The same principle applies to other characters in the book; no matter how selfish, violent, or harmful their behavior, they can always blame the unfathomable, mystical forces unleashed by the great fuku curse.

It could be possible then to see the character of Oscar as a symbol of the Dominican culture by whose norms he lives and ultimately dies: a culture in the viselike grip of a curse all of its own making.

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To begin with, we can define fuku as a curse that the novel's narrator illustrates as being the source of all of the bad luck and tragedy that befalls the Wao family throughout the novel. He also claims that it is responsible for the evil in the world, having been brought to the New World by European settlers. Fuku provides the story with a supernatural element, which contextualizes the events of Oscar's life within a larger framework than the merely mundane, physical world. 

Junot Diaz uses fuku to explore themes of fates and destiny. If all of Oscar's actions are supposedly controlled by supernatural powers like fuku that are beyond his grasp, then why bother living at all? Oscar struggles constantly with this, as his desire for life and the many beautiful things he finds in it is constantly met by tragic events and circumstances not within his control that threaten both his fleeting happiness and livelihood. For example, it is pretty unlucky that the woman who Oscar finds himself deeply and uncontrollably in love with, Ybon, happens to have had a previous relationship with a jealous, abusive, and vindictive man, the Capitan, who will not allow them to be together. The Capitan, like Trujillo, could even be taken as a physical manifestation of fuku, as he is a force hell bent on senseless evil and destruction. 

However, Diaz also seems to be exploring the importance of taking control of one's destiny and being accountable for one's actions. While many of the events in Oscar's life are certainly tragic and unpreventable, there are also many decisions he makes that prove detrimental to his life. For example, it is his choice to fly back to the island and return to Ybon's house in spite of the multiple warnings he has been given. By willingly submitting himself to such dangers, it is difficult to believe that his eventual murder is a mere twist of fate. 

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In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the Watcher (the older Yunior) first mentions the fuku in the footnotes.  This curse is linked to the rotten luck of Oscar's family, Trujillo, and even the Kennedy clan.   He says it starts with Columbus, when he brought syphilis to the New World.  Ironically, a Scientific American article (January 15, 2008) “Did Columbus Bring Syphilis to Europe?” confirms that he might have.

After reading the novel, the fuku becomes a leitmotif that could be any of the following:

  • a curse
  • fate
  • sexism
  • Trujillo
  • machismo
  • venereal disease
  • the "f#*k you"

Diaz arranges the novel in reverse chronological order to show how the curse has affected the DeLeons: first with Lola, then Beli, and on to Abelard Cabral’s decision to hide his wife and daughter in Chapter 5.

Finally, Oscar's quest for love is materialized when he makes the redemptive sacrifice of tracing the fuku back to its source, in the DR, and--with his death--ends it.

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