Brief & Nameless

Upon finishing any good book, I find it is always a good reflective tool to turn back to the beginning. What marks of the craftsman were left on the very first pages that foreshadowed the conclusion? The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a curious thing to study with that technique, arguably because of the carefully chosen epigraphs at the start of the novel.

“Of what import are brief, nameless lives … to Galactus??”

Fantastic Four, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby (Vol. 1, No. 49, April 1966)

The first of these gets as specific as specific can get. The use of a comic line as an epigraph provides a literary hors d’oeuvre of what is in store for the reader (the answer being more comic references than can be counted).

But of course, Junot Díaz did not choose a comic quote at random. This was plucked out of any number of possibilities and even reverberates in the title of the novel. So, where exactly did it come from and what can it mean for Oscar?

Fantastic Four, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby (Vol. 1, No. 49, April 1966) 

Here’s the kicker: unless you look it up, most readers have no idea that these brief nameless lives are really THE ENTIRE HUMAN RACE. It’s easy to shrug off the idea of quickly passing lives, because there are so many fleeting lives that are never known to us. Nameless lives mean nothing to Galactus, but unfortunately a ton of them mean very little to the rest of us too. Oscar is presented as one of those lives, and as a character he senses the minimal effect he has on most of the people he meets everyday. He is ignored, he is looked down on, and he is bullied. When Díaz equates him to this epigraph, however, he is really saying that Oscar may live a brief and nameless life, but he stands in for the entire world.

Oscar idolizes superheros, that much is clear from his tastes. Calling his life brief and nameless lumps him in with the characters he loves so much. In the comic panel above, Mr. Fantastic exclaims, “See how he ignores us … as though we’re of no consequence!” Throughout his entire life Oscar felt the same exact way. Oscar, the Human Torch, Invisible Woman, Thing, and Mr. Fantastic are all on the same level in this moment. A life like Oscar’s may seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but his life is a representation of all lives, which means it matters just as much and just as little as any other. That’s “the beauty.”


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