To the outside world, or rather the masses and masses of people who are able to consume and enjoy works of fiction, ‘geek culture’ is often used as a blanket term for anyone who is either incapable or stubbornly refuses to grow up; for anyone utterly devoted to subjects widely considered to be of no importance; for anyone described as ‘socially inept’. The marginal social status of a geek is particularly relevant to the depiction of Oscar De Leon in Junot Diaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Oscar’s obsessive interest in genres such as Science Fiction and Fantasy are a large part of his characterisation and, by extension, the narration of his story.
Yet, while geek is a term used for marking difference, the reality of our commonplace media-centric existence means that all of us have at some point flirted with being a ‘geek’ When I was 14, I went through a fantasy phase, gorging myself on the works of Philip Pullman and Garth Nix, Eoin Colfer and Dianne Wynne-Jones, J K Rowling and Terry Pratchett. At the time I didn’t recognise these as geek culture. My best friend read every single book of historical fiction that our school library stocked. Another friend was constantly thumbing through the many volumes of Peach Girl, and Bleach and Ironfist Chinmi and Case Closed. It was just something that young girls, i.e. persons beginning to develop their own tastes and opinions, needed to do and continued to do until their time was progressively occupied with essays and university applications and love interests.
While adolescent phases are accepted, the outside world (and I use this phrase because rather than quietly coexisting despite their differences, it seems as though those within geek confines and those without must stand opposed to one another) is uncomfortable with that portion of society that cannot leave behind what is considered a ‘childish pursuit’. Before geek became chic, society pushed geek culture to the periphery, and although in recent years it seems as though it has been embraced, there is still a feeling of unease. While 14 year-old me was called a geek by the children whose parents encouraged them to spend more time outside, and had struggled to turn this into a term of endearment, 19 year old me would find herself stripped of the finally reclaimed title by her once brothers-in-arms because her almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Harry Potter did not extend to Lord of the Rings or Hunger Games. My interest in superhero films was not firmly rooted in years of ravenously consuming the relevant graphic novels. I had not watched the original Star Wars trilogy. In a flash, a title that had once been the refuge of the quiet and the bookish and the eccentric, had closed its doors to those who did not express an almost superhuman commitment to the fandoms of Doctor Who, Skyrim and Joss Whedon. When Yunior says of Oscar in the novel, ‘No one, alas, more oppressive than the oppressed’, I can finally put a phrase to that change in status.
Throughout this book, the numerous cultural references draw the reader in or alienate them, are glossed over by critics as ornamentation but grasped as a concealed discourse by fellow geeks. The allusions to Trujillo as Sauron and Darkseid are effective to those with a basic knowledge of Tolkein or DC, but seem unnecessary to those who have to trawl through Wikipedia in order to gleam an understanding of the Dominican Republic during the 1930s. However Diaz’s choice to present the Dominican Republic in this manner express the juxtaposition between the two worlds expressed in the book. The DR and American appear otherworldly depending on where the reader happens to live. The ruthless dictator, the corrupt state and the secret police are plots we encounter in 1984 or Game of Thrones. The literary allusions are a means of communicating a state of affairs that some readers would only ever witness in a literary context.
The very wondrousness of Oscar is felt in the references to the works his worships: his big words, his huge glasses make him exist on the periphery of the Dominican culture that should otherwise embrace him. He is no ‘Dominican fat cat’, he is no playa, but he is the stuff of the books he reads – he is an X-man. As Oscar asks, ‘Do you want to know what being a X-man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of colour in a contemporary U.S. Ghetto’
How else could Oscar’s own sense of otherworldliness be expressed other than by constantly confronting the reader with the references that have shaped Oscar and his view of the world? After all, the book is about him. If someone were to write a book about me, I’d expect it to have a Community quote on every other page, in order to do me justice.