A few years ago, teaching at MIT, Dominican-American novelist Junot Díaz offered a class in worldbuilding, “the design and analysis of imaginary (or constructed) worlds for narrative media such as roleplaying games, films, comics, videogames and literary texts.” Among the required readings were Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, with additional texts by Octavia Butler, Alan Moore, and Roberto Bolaño.
It was just the kind of class that the protagonist of Díaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, published in September 2007, would have rushed to enroll in. Oscar is an ever aspiring young man from much-maligned Paterson, New Jersey, a devotee of swords and sorcery, video games, comix, and all the other Sheldon Cooper–esque pursuits that pretty well guarantee a long bachelorhood in one’s mom’s basement. “Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens,” the narrator, Yunior, explains. “Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to.”
Oscar—his name an approximation of Oscar Wilde, but with a “Wow!” built in—may be gorging on “Lovecraft, Wells, Burroughs, Howard, Alexander, Herbert, Asimov, Bova, and Heinlein,” as Díaz enumerates, while his peers are learning to drive and playing ball in the street, but he’s also got more than a little superhero baked into his makeup. Though shlubby and awkward, he is steadfast in his loyalties, whether to the young women he loves from afar or to the Terminator as well as to a family that finds him a puzzle.
He is also fearless. Díaz’s novel opens with the specter of a curse brought to what Oscar calls “Ground Zero of the New World” from Africa by Oscar’s forebears, a curse that takes many forms, from the depression and suicidal thoughts that occasionally plague him to the brutal dictatorship that forced so many Dominicans to flee from the island. Those aspects of the fukú, that ancient curse, come together when Oscar travels to Santo Domingo, falls in love, and runs afoul of “one of those very bad men that not even postmodernism can explain away.”
Inexplicably, though the victim of a spasmodic violence doled out by his would-be girlfriend’s ex, a high-ranking cop, Oscar refuses to run. “It’s the Ancient Powers,” he says. “They won’t leave me alone.” Oscar might as well have worn a cape in his last moments, and Díaz invests him in a kind of nobility reminiscent of what Miguel de Cervantes did with his Don Quixote. Though cursed and way out of his element, he refuses to give in, a hero for our time.
Much of the best writing in English, George Steiner once observed, has been coming from the peripheries of the English-speaking world. He was thinking of the likes of V.S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, and Nadine Gordimer, but decades later the observation still holds. To that roster we can add such writers as Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, and Dinaw Mengestu. And, of course, Junot Díaz, whose work adds to our great river of storytelling—and ups the nerd factor, too.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.