09/14/2012 04:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Cataloguing Cultural References in 'Oscar Wao'

"Oscar had always been a young nerd-the kind of kid who read Tom Swift, who loved comic books and watched Ultraman....he was gorging himself on a steady stream of Lovecraft, Wells, Burroughs, Howard, Alexander, Herbert, Asimov, Bova, and Heinlein, and even the Old Ones who were already beginning to fade--E.E. "Doc" Smith, Stapledon, and the guy who wrote all the Doc Savage books-moving hungrily from book to book, author to author, age to age....Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn't have passed for Normal if he'd wanted to." -Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

I'm not a huge geek, as far as I know. I'm an avid reader, yes, but after I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I only knew two things for certain: 1) I believe Junot Díaz to be a genius and a beast, and 2) I only caught 1/4th of the novel's pop culture references, tops. (For example, from the excerpt above, I'm only familiar with five or six of those proper nouns, and I'm not even sure which Burroughs he's referencing.)

Of course, that's part of the beauty of the novel. Diaz's sexy cartwheeling Spanglish prose drives the story, but at heart, this is a geeky book about a nerdy boy. Oscar's world sags under his myriad sci-fi inscrutables, heavy badges of geekitude that isolate him from every living girl on his lonely planet. Diaz references hundreds of points of culture, both superstars and blips, and they pour out of nearly every chapter in the book. Only a reader as geeky as Oscar could catch 'em all, if you will.

In 2007, when the book first came out, I felt a little guilty for not taking the time to catch each of the references. But the story's fast-paced and engrossing; I didn't want to keep going back to the computer to Google everything. I just wanted to read the damn thing. I breezed over some references at the possible expense of the story, for all I knew.

In 2010, I acquired an avid reader's dream job at Small Demons, a company devoted to gathering cultural references in books and translating them into beautiful visual indexes. One of my first tasks as a content manager was to choose a book that would encapsulate the idea of a visual smorgasbord of references. Whatever book I chose, I'd have to comb it for every last detail. Here, I saw a chance to exonerate myself.

After I obtained a digital version of Oscar Wao, I didn't just tag every single cultural reference in the book. Here's where it gets really geeky: I also discovered and digitally connected each reference to every other book that mentions that selfsame detail. Every tag I made added to a huge interlocking web of hundreds of details across hundreds of novels. Ramfis Trujillo, Kim Novak, Frank Herbert, George Foreman, The Bronx, Rutgers, The Twilight Zone, Dune, TIE fighters, The Smiths...all the details of Oscar's life emerged. I finally got the chance to understand every last one of them, and then my jobs was to connect them to the other worlds of which they had also been a part.

So now I'll offer up to you the same chance I had to re-engage with Oscar, with some help from Small Demons.

"His happiest moments were genre moments, like when Akira was released (1998). Pretty sad."

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"In some ways living in Santo Domingo during the Trujillato was a lot like being in the famous Twilight Zone episode that Oscar loved so much, the one where the monstrous white kid with the godlike powers rules over a town that is completely isolated from the rest of the world, a town called Peaksville."



At this point, yes, I'd say I'm pretty much head geek of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I know far more about every detail of the book than any normal person should. I know Kim Novak slept with Ramfis, but I also know she makes an appearance in Waiting For Snow in Havana and Underworld. George Foreman shows up in a Groucho Marx biography. The Smiths, one of Lola's favorite bands, appear in Trainspotting and High Fidelity.

For a novice geek like myself, it was a fascinating and overwhelming project. It made me want to re-read the novel.

Which I did. And probably will again, after writing this.

View all of the cultural references in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao at Small Demons.