I’m a decade late to Junot Díaz, an omission for which I have no real excuse. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was worth the wait: it’s a novel so deft it overcame the limitations of my own taste. I am not usually a fan of the casual, offhand prose style in which the book is written—again, my defect—but Díaz executes it with such effortless perfection that I didn’t mind. Not once did his wry narrator tip the novel’s precarious tragicomedy out of balance.
More impressively still, the novel’s intertextual architecture is brilliant. In a novel that’s self-consciously setting itself up as a bildungsroman-slash-epic, Díaz deliberately refuses to draw on the canonical undergirding whose weight often provides a shorthand for signaling those genres’ significance to lit-fic readers in the Anglophone west. You know the sort of allusions I mean: every novel of self-discovery modeled on Ulysses (or Homer), or any meditative mention of madeleines.* Allusions are a fast, easy way of claiming meaning, because they rely on resonances already built up by other texts.
Díaz knows this, and so he jettisons the western canon almost entirely and replaces it with the geek canon. The book’s main intertexts are an alternative hierarchy whose Homer is Tolkien, whose King James is The Watchmen, and whose lesser satellites are RPGs, the Marvel/DC universes, and late-20th-century science fiction doorstoppers like Dune. What’s interesting is that despite the deep nerdery of the novel’s title character, its geek canon isn’t deployed to serve characterization. The book’s narrator is not actually a geek, so his fluency in Quenya doesn’t really make sense. Instead, the novel’s geek canon exists to illustrate its playful, compelling argument: that canonical allusions bestow significance not because of their particular content, but because they are a form, a system of references whose very intricacy will, at a certain point, develop its own weight. As a literary device, the canon is a container. What’s in it doesn’t matter. For example, in one of the book’s many footnotes, Díaz calls Felix Wenceslao Bernadino, lackey of the DR’s longtime dictator Trujillo, “one of Trujillo’s most sinister agents, his Witchking of Angmar.” Even if you aren’t aware of the Witchking’s status as Sauron’s chief Nazgul (in The Lord of the Rings), by this point in the novel—page 120—you have encountered enough references to grasp Bernadino’s dangerous power anyway. Tolkien works well as Homer, even if you don’t know him well.
I wonder if Díaz was banking on his lit-fic readers not knowing Tolkien well. If so, the book’s geek canon is additionally a clear anti-colonial move—in form, if not in content. The geek canon as Oscar reads it is as much the colonizer’s canon as Herman Melville. But it could alienate a reader more familiar with Proust than Jean Luc Picard. And in doing so, it might very well replicate the othering effect of novels steeped in the western canon, that presume their audience both knows and likes that canon, on readers from outside the tradition. The allusive form works—Díaz builds it up so carefully that it has to—but it also might force some readers into the unusual position of being, for once, on the outside looking in.
*Díaz does name-drop madeleines once, cheekily, just so that you know that he can play the western-canon game when he wants to. But he, like Oscar and the novel’s other notable canonical allusion, would prefer not to.