'Oscar Wao' Marks Diaz's Return to the Past

Article excerpt

Junot Diaz'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 Diaz'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 Diaz's efforts to write a science-fiction novel, which he has not yet finished.

The author, 38, spoke by phone from his Washington, D.C., hotel, where he was starting his book tour.

Question: 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.

Answer: 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.

Q: What brought you back to science fiction?

A: 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. …