Why The Round House is better than Oscar Wao

This week Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was named the best book of the century so far. I found the book to be absorbing, especially for the historical passages, but had some problems with it: there is a lot of gratuitous violence, especially against women, an unconvincing love story driving the plot, and unsatisfying conclusion. But obviously I’m alone, because it won the Pulitzer Prize (among other honors), launched Diaz into the stratosphere of prestigious authors, and is now apparently the best book of the last fifteen years.

Oscar Wao is described as the quintessential “nerd of color” book. I’m not crazy about the word, “nerd,” but if nerd identity is a thing, Oscar Wao is the kind of nerd you see on The Big Bang Theory: absorbed equally by all things nerdy without any particular favorite, emotionally (even intellectually) stunted, and socially inept. To me, he seemed like a non-nerd’s conception of a nerd.

Well, that’s my opinion, and I probably wouldn’t blog about it, but this morning heard a terrific passage in The Round House where Joe, the narrator and protagonist, describes his love for Star Trek: The Next Generation. For me this was a much better execution of the “nerd of color” trope that Oscar Wao.

First, Joe is really into Star Trek, and is very specific he means the new Star Trek, The Next Generation (it takes place in the 1980s). He particularly likes Worf. This fealty to one show and one character, the specificity of it, is more true to the nerds I’ve been and known than the all-things-nerdy caricature. Second, in a few nimble paragraphs Erdrich integrates this fandom into Joe’s personality and social context, describing how the show figures into Joes’ emerging identity, how aspects of the show work as metaphor for his experience as a kid-of-color and as a sex-obsessed teen, how the show fosters a community and code among his peers. Oscar Wao didn’t do any of these things. Oscar’s nerdiness makes him an outcast among other Dominican boys and later seems to limit his potential academically and professionally.

The Round House shows how this classic “nerd” interest helps foster a kid’s self-identity, instead of warping it. It shows how the social experience of a television program helps Joe cement his relationships, instead of making him an outcast. It doesn’t use the word nerd, but in one chapter Louise Erdrich does for Joe what Diaz never does for Oscar: take a nerd-positive view.

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