I'm still catching up on last year's noteworthy books. I just finished Junot DÃaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
and my first question is: How did this thing get published? I'm not talking about the prose's fruitful conjoining with Spanish (what might be called "weird English," per Evelyn Chien's book, which covered DÃaz's Drown
), or the narrator's forays into the history of the Dominican Republic (elucidated in high-spirited footnotes). That's all fine.
I'm talking about the language of Dungeons & Dragons!
You know something's up from the first epigraph, taken from the comic book Fantastic Four. But this doesn't prepare you for the degree to which the overlapping worlds of fantasy, science fiction, comics, and role-playing games permeate all that follows. After all, the Fantastic Four was the basis of two recent Hollywood movies, and an early reference to Sauron from The Lord of the Rings also partakes in pop culture's recent lingua franca. No further explanation is needed.
I kept getting happily distracted by the allusions to otherworldy lit: "Long-haired and prissy and so pretty she could have played young Dejah Thoris." Quick ? and no Wikipediaing allowed ? who's Dejah Thoris? The name bounced in my head for a few moments (Wait...wait...is he talking about..?) and then it clicked: The titular figure in Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars! (And I guess I do mean titular: the cover image from my Del Rey paperback was seared into my 13-year-old mind.)
Then I thought: Who's going to get that reference?
It makes total sense, of course ? both as a fantastic analogue to the cross-cultural experience (Dominican, American) and as a way to get into the mind of Oscar, DÃaz's overweight protagonist and fanboy extraordinaire. (The "Wao" surname in the title is born when Oscar dresses as Dr. Who one Halloween, gets likened instead to the paunchy Oscar Wilde, which is then artfully mangled.) Oscar writes unpublished and unpublishable science-fiction epics, and we can see him as an alternate-world/"What If?" version of the novel's narrator, Yunior (a fictional stand-in for DÃaz himself). What if DÃaz, who clearly knows his SF from Asimov to Zelazny, had become a writer who set his stories on arid moons and hyperintelligent spacecraft instead of in New Jersey?
Oscar's worldview (and DÃaz's, surely) has been nourished by "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." It's a syllabus that will give any SF buff a little spike of joy. (Here's where I should mention that I write an SF column called Astral Weeks for the Los Angeles Times; my new one goes up tomorrow, on a lost 19th-century New Zealand adventure called The Great Romance by the mysterious writer known as "The Inhabitant.")
In the wake of mainstream literary fictioneers (Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem) inventively incorporating aspects of genre fiction and comic books in their novels, DÃaz's orgy of references won't baffle the general audience; even Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections had a drug called Aslan, after the lion-cum-Christ figure in C.S. Lewis's Narnia books.
But Dungeons & Dragons?!
It is the hobby that dare not speak its name.
What is DÃaz up to? "I still had a few hit points left," Oscar says after getting mangled in a "Colossal Beatdown." Another victim of violence is said to have received "About 167 points of damage in total." This idea of "hit points" is never explained, and will be completely opaque to someone who's never rolled up a character and played D&D. Every character has a certain number of hit points; when the character gets injured by a weapon, it inflicts (subtracts) hit points based on the roll of a die or dice. The deadlier the weapon, and the more skilled the attacker, the more hit points can potentially be extracted. Elsewhere in the book, there is simply the notation, in parentheses, of "(4d10)" ? a reference to hit points that's so inside-baseball that it doesn't even mention hit points. It means that the injured party will have to subtract a number of hit points equal to a roll of four 10-sided dice. (Part of the talismanic power of D&D lay in those strange dice; a whole set was needed, with four-, eight-, 10-, 12-, and 20-sided dice needed to complement the regular old six-siders you could find in your old board games.)
It's more than a wink; DÃaz's use of the D&D damage system reflects the hermetic nature of Oscar's mind (as conveyed by Yunior); there's an instant distancing, or even aestheticizing, taking place.
There's also a heartbreaking reference to D&D in this quick description of Oscar's awkward high school years: "Everybody else going through the terror and joy of their first crushes, their first dates, their first kisses while Oscar sat in the back of the class, behind his DM's screen, and watched his adolescence stream by." A DM's screen is a piece of folded cardboard, covered with charts, behind which the Dungeon Master (who creates and/or referees the scenario in which the other player-characters fight, explore, etc.) rolls those dice to determine their fate. Oscar at that age has no control, but his withdrawal gives him the necessary delusion, perhaps, that he's pulling the strings.
That's enough about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao for now. I'm struck by another book that I'm close to finishing, The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood. It's a new memoir by my friend Ta-Nehisi Coates, with whom I worked at The Village Voice. His journalism did not prepare me for this memoir, a form in which his already thrumming language gets to stretch out and do wonders. The book is about a lot of things ? growing up in Baltimore, with a difficult but awesomely present father (Paul Coates) intent on rescuing Knowledge, who had become "a publisher plumbing through all the old works by black scholars, works lost to time, and bring them back in all their splendor."
Among the Conscious, a man is only worth his latest reading. Each page pulled you farther out of slumber, and among the most enlightened it was not uncommon to hear an entire conversation composed of footnotes.
The power, real or perceived, of hermetic knowledge suffuses The Beautiful Struggle, gives the prose an almost surreal, feverish quality.
So it shouldn't be a surprise that Ta-Nehisi also knows his D&D ? that most hermetic and book-bound of games ? and layers it into this memoir like the by-laws of a secret society.
The first indication that something's afoot is on page ? well ? three, when Ta-Nehisi uses "kobolds" and "berserking" in a single graf ? bizarre words, but shibboleths to D&Ders. Then on page 30: "In Dad's days, we were a close-knit circle, but a circle surrounded by dire wolves." It's a stunning adjective, "dire"; there's a real prehistoric canine called the dire wolf, but if you've heard at all, it's probably through the D&D bestiary.
These are just foretastes. Soon we see our young hero imagining, dreaming, every roll of the dice bringing another world into being.
On weekends we would sprawl across the living room floor in front of the wood-burning stove, and go rooting through the Isle of Dread or In Search of the Unknown. When I held the polyhedral dice, their many sides were all futures, shard of other worlds where Medusae flashed their dead gazes and my dwarven thrower shattered against stone. I was young and hubby, and still completely smiles....Life was open and possible as those emerald dice from Geppi's.
Just a little more and I'll let you go:
[â€¦] I had papers spread in front of me, with wisdom, saves, and spells. Those papers were lives. They were unfurled scrolls and spoke words to animate the dead.
I haven't played Dungeons & Dragons in years, and even as a youngster I didn't play it so much as I read it ? a fascinatingly detailed, even labyrinthine series of books filled with 100-dollar words and borrowings from arcane libraries, a system at once complete and endlessly proliferating, that suggested both free will (your imagination is limitless) and predetermination (everything comes down to the dice). Language, world creation, chance: Pretty useful things for a future writer to engage with.
For the definitive article on Dungeons & Dragons, read Paul La Farge's amazing piece "Destroy All Monsters," which I edited for The Believer.
More information can be found at my blog, which I saturated with D&D links upon the death of Gary Gygax, the game's co-creator.