A return to his past
Junot Díaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” seems poised to be the hottest debut novel of the year. Arriving after 11 years of expectation following Díaz’s celebrated story collection “Drown,” the novel’s narrative voice evokes both the polyglot energy of Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” and the sexual longing (and New Jersey setting) of Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint.”
But in some crucial ways Oscar, the novel’s hapless protagonist, is the opposite of the horn dog Portnoy. A fat, bespectacled “ghetto nerd,” the teenage Oscar obsesses over science fiction and fantasy, aiming not to deflower shiksas but to become the Dominican Tolkien.
The long delay between the story collection and “Oscar Wao”? It was partly because of Díaz’s efforts to write a science fiction novel, which he has not yet finished.
The author, 38, spoke by phone from his Washington hotel, where he was starting his book tour.
Your book’s hero, Oscar, doesn’t have a lot in common with you. But you’re both Dominican immigrants who developed a ravenous interest in science fiction and fantasy.
When I was young I loved science fiction.
It’s hard to explain why you’re vulnerable to certain kinds of narratives. But one of the things that I’ve thought is that it was only in genres that I found the kind of extreme narratives that I was living.
I tell people, Yo, the only thing that’s gonna describe coming from Santo Domingo in 1974, no electricity, no running water, on the farthest spiral arm of what we call the modern, and then having cable, and being at the cutting edge of the modern -- the only thing that made sense to me was a time machine. It was like time travel.
I loved everything by Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov -- I read everything by Heinlein. I read everything by Bova; I was a huge fan of the apocalyptic novels of John Christopher, of the cozy, “the armchair apocalyptics.” I was reading the “eminently uncool,” the square, dead-on.
But what happened is I stopped reading it for 15, 16, 17 years. I discovered girls, that was the problem.
And I became a Stephen King-head. He was my gateway drug to serious literature. Stephen King at least has normal people encountering the crazy, while the other stuff I was reading about was talking aliens or robots and stuff.
But from there I went to college and got a real education in literary fiction, which I’d never had before.
What brought you back to science fiction?
It was Oscar who brought it back to me, because I created a character who never stopped loving it.
It definitely ends up being among the less savvy social moves that Oscar makes, to fall in love with one of the most marginal and mocked-on narrative forms.
But I suddenly realized I couldn’t write Oscar unless I knew all this crap, and I had to read hundreds of books.
My boys were all cracking up: Outta nowhere, me, who just wanted to watch ultimate fighting champion boxing, suddenly I was on EBay buying extremely rare and hard to find science-fiction books: And they were like, “What . . . are you doing?” And I was like, “I have to do this research.” They said, “You’re crazy.”
It was just one of those things where I found the research -- as usual -- far more enjoyable than the writing. . . . There were these weird texts by John Brunner called “The Atlantic Abomination.” He is one of the great ones. But I went around digging for his really bad genre books. “The Atlantic Abomination.” Wow. Holy Moly. If you smoked crack and went on a Ferris wheel for five days you could come up with something like this. He was buggin’.
It’s like if you go to meet someone and then you fall in love. I went to do this research, and I ended up being a fanboy again.
It seems like you weren’t looking for literary quality, exactly, but a kind of extreme experience on the page, maybe an audacity, you weren’t seeing in mainstream fiction?
You know what it is? Somebody really loved this book. I mean, usually that’s the way it works. Even work for hire, hack work, you did care about this book for the two days it took you to write it.
For me it wasn’t that old ironic stance. Somebody did really love this ugly lump, and I don’t find it easy to dismiss that, as I’m noticing how terribly written it is, or how many warts it has.
I find myself wanting to look through it and say, “This took up a part of someone’s life; what can I see in it that makes it worth it?”
Somebody’s trying to give us a vision of their moment. Science fiction is an attempt to use the future to talk about the present, and to talk about it in a far more uncensored way.
It’s funny that there’s been this movement of male writers born in the ‘60s -- Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, you and others -- to revive these genres like science fiction, comic books, boys’ adventure stories and so on. What’s driving this revenge of the nerds?
Part of why the trend is so visible is that the market is supporting it.
It’s not that popular culture has suddenly become so incredibly tolerant and so open, with such equanimity that it embraces comic books and anime and so on. It’s that capitalism has gotten so ferocious, and has to sell everything to everyone, and keep us as perpetual adolescents, and use every bell and whistle it can.
It’s one of those weird things, because in the end we still think of the high-low cultural divide. One of the reasons we talk about Chabon, that we talk about Lethem, is because these are, notwithstanding their genre roots, these are considered literary fiction heads, “dabbling” in these fields.
I don’t think dabbling is what they’re doing. But part of the frisson comes from the fact that these are lit-heads doing this.
Given the acclaim your novel has gotten -- which includes some of the year’s best reviews -- aren’t you in that lit-head category yourself?
Well, the funny part is: More important than all that, I’m a writer of color. People have all sort of labels for what I do. So the joke with me is: Really, what’s the difference for someone who’s already considered a genre, to do a genre? I felt the joke of the book was: What was more genre? The Dominican parts, or the science fiction part?”
I think a writer of color in the United States would have more in common with, or feel a kinship to the marginalization of comic books, for instance, in a way I think that mainstream writers couldn’t feel. Two margins tend to feel comfortable with each other.