Imagine, if you will, the Salman Rushdie of geek culture. Done that? Good. You probably now know whether you're going to like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
In part, by mentioning geek culture I'm playing to my audience. Junot Díaz's first novel, although ostensibly the life story of a fictional genre writer, is in truth far more about the Dominican Republic, about love and the immigrant experience, than it is about science fiction and fantasy. Like Rushdie, Díaz is a postcolonialist postmodernist, weaving a complex, saturated tale of identity and place encompassing the intensely personal and the wheelingly panoramic. Like Rushdie, too, his story of one remarkable individual (Díaz's Oscar Wao, Rushdie's Saleem Sinai) can only be told with reference to a half dozen and more other stories, to the entire history of the author's native country. And like Rushdie, Díaz uses pop culture references to add extra zest, depth, and playful immediacy to his tales.
Where Rushdie used Bollywood and advertising to evoke the teeming, colourful, hyperactive India of Midnight's Children (1981), Díaz uses science fiction to explicate the remarkable and often liminal world of the people of the Dominican Republic. "What more sci-fi than the Santo Domingo?" our narrator asks (p. 6). Oscar Wao grows up in the USA, part of the Dominican Diaspora, as a fat, unpopular nerd, reading old science fiction novels, playing Dungeons and Dragons, and watching endless Star Trek and Space Ghost reruns. Shunned by his classmates and misunderstood by his family, Wao sees the world almost entirely through the narrow prism of science fiction, all the time convincing himself that this is in some way a special and expansive worldview beyond the minds of his feeble contemporaries.
In truth, though, Díaz and Wao, again like Rushdie before them, are using fantasy and fabulation as a screen for the dark, and all too real, heart of their story: the systematic rape of the Dominican Republic by its venal political class, first Trujillo and then Belageur. This Díaz depicts pungently, ironically, and emotively, making his narrator a dyspeptic ranter, a writer unable to keep his intense distaste for the Dominican Republic's tyrants out of his lengthy and frequent historical footnotes.
Stylistically and in terms of its preoccupations, then, Oscar Wao is a political work, examining US foreign policy, the will to power, and immigration with a bravely irreverent intelligence. It is perhaps unfair to address Díaz in reference to Rusdie, since the former is so clearly a very fine writer in his own right. Indeed, it is not too much to say that Díaz outclasses Rushdie in those areas where the latter is often weakest. Díaz is not precious, he is not over-worthy or indeed -wordy, and he is certainly not as self-conscious as Rushdie. Oscar Wao exhibits a genuine—rather than affected—playfulness which Rushdie's work rarely has. In addition, Díaz—though his interest in SF has been prefigured in Rushdie's Grimus (1975), for instance—does not dwell in the strangely isolated magic realist Macondo of the postcolonialist imagination. The very reason he chooses SF as Oscar's obsession is, perhaps, thanks to its avowedly materialist base.
In this way, it seems to me that Díaz can be seen to be responding to post-colonial commonplaces: that it is not necessarily the case that post-colonial peoples must "write back to the centre," defining their identity in reference to themselves. When Oscar Wao uses science fiction to define himself, Díaz suggests the colonial power can be raided as well as rejected.
What of this SF, then? As much as Díaz assails the reader with Spanglish and swagger, making his prose move to its own sashaying Caribbean beat, it is science fiction to which he routinely returns. Oscar's whole identity, as a Dominican at least as much as a geek, rests on his relationship with the genre: "Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman his lens" (p. 21). The identity politics of Díaz's post-colonialist parable return again and again not to the native mythology of the Dominican Republic but to the badges of honour of the geek culture: Tolkien, Kirby, and Rodenberry, the nods reading under Díaz's skilled hand exactly like the love of a dyed-in-the-wool fanboy, rather than the clever academic understanding of a Chabon or a Lethem. The reader feels the strength of Oscar's identification through the way in which Díaz's narrator paints his world using the brushes of the genre: Trujillo is Sauron, his goons ringwraiths; even the narrator identifies with the Watcher, Uatu. (What If ... El Jefe never lived?)
This saturated style is what lends Oscar Wao its Pultizer-winning power. If Díaz paints both the US and the Dominican Republic with a pitch-perfect yet highly distinctive verisimilitude, his method of doing so is always the same: reference. Even the Spanish he includes is a sort of shorthand (it's why even monolingual readers can enjoy the thrill of the novel's language), a nod of the stylistic head towards something wider and deeper. If this suggests that Díaz does not quite play fair, lending power from works which are not his own, then I hesitate to disabuse you of the notion. Díaz is not in this indulging in traditional intertextuality (though he does that, too), where the dialogue between works enriches both, but in that shorthand I mentioned earlier, the use of a thing—Spanglish and science fiction alike—for purposes of signification.
Díaz, however, has a strong defence—his writing is so strong, and his intelligence so acute, that the constant references are choice seasoning to the meat of his work, adding memorable flavour to what is already a remarkably nourishing dish. The SF in Díaz's novel serves to heighten and emphasise the Dominican experience, but also to redefine the way we think of both. It is a further example of Díaz's remarkable facility, the deftness of a writer who never fails to seem comfortable and, for want of a better and more literary term, natural.
"The fukú doesn't always strike like lightning. Sometimes it works patiently, drowning a nigger by degrees, like with the Admiral or the U.S. in the paddies of Saigon. Sometimes it's slow and sometimes it's fast. It's doom-ish in that way, makes it harder to put a finger on, to brace yourself against. But be assured: like Darkseid's Omega Effect, like Morgoth's Bane, no matter how many turns and digressions this shit might take, it always—and I mean always—gets its man." (p. 5)
Díaz's narrator frames the whole novel as a fukú story, a performance like a Jacobean tragedy in which the whole family is irrevocably doomed. Part of this conceit, of course, is the play on the word—fukú, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao says, if you think you know what I should be doing. Structurally, stylistically, and in terms of content, this is not a revolutionary or a ground-breaking novel; but in its status as an almost undisputed masterpiece of its kind it is able to find the authority to play with our expectations about what its toolbox may be used to achieve. Díaz certainly depicts his geek as a victim, using Oscar's fanboy isolation as a mirror for the marginalisation of the immigrant, but Oscar's identification with SF is also his salvation. And yet this stale opposition, between one view of fandom (an ostracized cult) and another (a secular revivalist meeting where all are saved), is not something such a novel should be happy with. Oscar's is a lonely redemption, and the novel's agnosticism about almost everything extends into its depiction of fannishness.
The fact that Oscar's love of SF is not seen to rescue him, but merely to provide him cold comfort, does not make the book anti-geek. Rather, it simply refuses to be simplistic, its shorthands too broadly chosen to point in any one direction: far from choosing either stigmatisation or a revenge of the nerd scenario, the book instead just shrugs. Its signs point towards a confusion of destinations, making for pathways without conclusion but with a moreish wealth of incident. "What's certain is that nothing's certain. We are trawling in silences here" (p. 243).
Fukú, though its real existence is constantly doubted by the leading characters, is nevertheless central to this means of seeing the world. Though it is an inevitable fate, an implacable foe, it will never strike as you expect, and it will always wreak its revenge upon you at a time of its own choosing. Life, Oscar Wao's own suggests, is fascinating to examine but impossible to capture: "If you ask me I don't think there are any such things as curses," we are told at the start of Part II. "I think there is only life. That's enough", p. 205) The key here is not the explanations you invent, but the choice to tell a story to interpret: "you'll have to decide for yourself" (p. 243). Díaz is the least didactic writer I have read in a long time, and the only side he is willing to take, and then only in opposition to the alternative, is the underdog's. ("Of what import are brief, nameless lives ... to Galactus?" bellows the book's epigram. The rest of the novel is Díaz's riposte.)
His novel's plot is in a way best read backwards—even its title implies its end. Though the section's dealing with Oscar directly proceed in a rough chronological sequence, others start more recently and proceed further backwards into the past, towards the dark heart of the fukú. The history, of course, is made vivid by the 21st century street slang and the irrepressible pop culture references. As the book proceeds, though, the genre references begin to seem repetitive—it is as if Díaz has seen a few major SF blockbusters (Star Wars, Spider-Man, Planet of the Apes) and stuck to them. But of course his narrators are the outsiders, peering into Oscar's compendious collection with only the layman's awareness. Only Oscar knows it all, and only he has the answer. Trust him, and read the book to the last page.
Salman Rushdie, he say: "Our lives teach us who we are" (In Good Faith, 1990). Once again, we will be forgiven for finding Rushdie precious and frustrating. But in this case, perhaps, he is also right. Junot Díaz, undoubtedly, agrees. "This book argues that the real is fantastic," he has said in an interview. In this he is quite right. And, in writing a book about a young man, a family, and a nation, all trying to find their ways, he has succeeded in producing a headrush of a novel which reclaims from Galactus's icy disdain, and in commendably accessible fashion, the ordinary lives of the little people. We are all of us nerds in our way, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is for us. And the best thing of all? "It's only a story, with no kind of evidence, the kind of shit only a nerd could love" (p. 246)
Dan Hartland has been doing this too long to think anyone cares who he is.