The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is written in three languages: English, Spanish and Science Fiction. From the opening epigraph, a quote from Galactus, to the final pages, the entire text is shot through with genre references, both well-known and obscure. Most folk are familiar with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but likely not M.A.R. Barker’s Tékumel series.
“Of what import are brief, nameless lives . . . to Galactus??”
I’m partial to genre myself. My favorite series as a kid was John Christopher’s Tripod Trilogy, and in middle school I couldn’t lift my nose up from Michael Crichton’s Sphere and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Even these books are more mainstream than many referenced in Oscar Wao. The character, Oscar is a more dedicated geek than I could ever hope to be, and his creator, Junot Díaz, is more widely read in genre fiction than any other Pulitzer Prize author (or at least, he has been the only one to admit it).
A few years ago, Díaz gave an interview with the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. The mission of the podcast is precisely what you might imagine from its title. As a regular listener, I was surprised to see Díaz’s name come up. I hadn’t read Oscar Wao, and was only aware of it because of its honorifics. Listening to the interview, I was mesmerized. Díaz was not only brilliant and insightful, but also had an unbelievable trove of knowledge and admiration for genre fiction. He pointed out that genre fiction is one of the few literary traditions to confront issues of power, and having grown up in the Dominican Republic in the shadow of Trujillo, he found great value in stories that featured dictators, warlords and tyrants.
Díaz himself hoped to be a genre writer. As he says in the Geek’s Guide interview, his initial hope was to be a “switch hitter,” writing a book like Drown one year and something like Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer series the next. His first book deal actually featured a fantasy trilogy, which, nearly two decades later, he is still under contract to finish.
What does genre fiction bring to Oscar Wao? Anyone who speaks more than one language knows there are words and phrases that cannot be translated without some level of loss, or mutation, of meaning. The two non-English languages in Wao (Spanish and Science Fiction) serve to express things that English, even through metaphor, cannot convey; they also serve to draw us deeper into the world of the novel and its characters.
According to interviews I’ve read, Díaz believes that genre fiction is long overdue its day in the sun— that is to say—its formal acknowledgement as substantive art by the literati gatekeepers. Díaz also cautions us not to mistake the opportunistic cashing-in on geekdom, evidenced by big-budget movies, TV series, “rock star” authors like Neil Gaiman and China Miévelle, etcetera, etcetera, as cultural acceptance. With Oscar Wao, Díaz shows us how what sets genre fiction apart from literature is, in fact, what the two traditions have deeply in common: the use of imagery and imagination in bearing witness to the human condition.
I haven’t discussed in detail the dozens, if not hundreds, of genre references woven throughout Oscar Wao, but let’s just say this, if you haven’t dug into genre fiction yet, one tour through Díaz’s incredible novel will give you an outstanding reading list.