Contemporary Literature's Greatest Geeks


There’s no polite way to say it. The star of Roberto Bolaño’s long-awaited novel, The Third Reich , is a geek — a gamer geek, to be precise. And it’s the real-world implications of his all-consuming pastime that underlie the book’s action, even as he relaxes on the beach with his beautiful girlfriend and parties into the night with new friends. The immense role gaming plays in Bolaño’s atmospheric, slow-burning novel, written before The Savage Detectives and 2666 and serialized by The Paris Review in advance of its publication last month, got us thinking about the many memorable geeks contemporary literature has given us. A selection of our favorites is after the jump; add yours in the comments.

Udo Berger, The Third Reich

The diarist whose entries comprise Bolaño’s novel isn’t just a gamer — he’s the German national war games champion, who means to write an important article on the topic while he vacations in Spain. While Udo spends pages expounding upon strategy, and much of the book is devoted to an increasingly disturbing match, he also isn’t your typical geek. For one thing, although he doesn’t exactly excel at maintaining relationships, he certainly gets laid.

Blue van Meer, Special Topics in Calamity Physics

The protagonist of Marisha Pessl’s debut novel is the daughter of a highfalutin professor — which might explain why she’s such a wordsmith and fount of cultural, and especially filmic, knowledge. Blue’s trove of cinematic wisdom comes into play when our geeky heroine enrolls in St. Gallway School, falls in with an elite cadre of rich kids and their charismatic teacher, and the book transforms into a murder mystery.

Oscar de León, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The classic nerd may be a pale, pasty white kid, but his Dominican descent does nothing to save the hero of Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer-winning novel from utter geekdom. Paterson, NJ’s own Oscar de León is a roly-poly kid who lives vicariously through sci-fi books and role-playing games — and is, as a result, an outcast. Even his pair of dorky friends eventually find girlfriends and abandon poor Oscar, whose greatest wish is to find true love. What happens next is too complicated and spoiler-filled to summarize, but rest assured that the title is accurate.

Joe Kavalier and Sammy Klayman, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Joe Kavalier is a 19-year-old Holocaust refugee from Prague. Sammy Klayman is his 17-year-old cousin. Together in New York, they’re obsessed with magic — Harry Houdini in particular — and art. Michael Chabon’s absorbing, award-winning coming-of-age novel follows the guys through love and adversity, as they seek their fortunes through their very own Golden Age, Houdini-inspired, fascist-fighting comic-book hero, the Escapist.

Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, The Fortress of Solitude

Speaking of comic-book geeks! Dylan Ebdus and his friend Mingus Rude’s story takes place not in the New York of the ’40s but in ’70s Brooklyn. Against a backdrop of gentrification-driven racial tensions that complicates their relationship (Dylan is white and Mingus is black), the boys bond over comics — and even, in a touch of magical realism, acquire superpowers of their own before losing each other to the pull of their very different futures.

Harriet M. Welsch, Harriet the Spy

A favorite childhood hero of loners, voyeurs, and aspiring writers, Harriet the Spy is a smart and strange girl who peeps at kids and adults alike, filling a notebook with her clandestine observations. Of course, when word gets out that she’s keeping tabs on (and judging) her classmates, she’s in for some PG-rated bullying from the newly formed Spy Catcher Club. Thankfully, she’s able to leverage her nerd skills into a gig as editor of her class newspaper — where she learns the great journalistic lesson that, really, sometimes all you can do about something terrible you’ve written is publicly eat your words.

Lisbeth Salander, Millennium trilogy

Don’t be fooled by the goth exterior — underneath the leather, piercings, and that famous dragon tattoo, Lisbeth Salander is a big, ol’ geek. Isolated from her peers since childhood, and further alienated by an abusive father and the violent impulses he ignited in her, her tool for self-empowerment is the computer. Like many other nerds, she uses a keyboard to create the person she wants to be — a cracker whose hacking skills ensure that she’ll never have to depend on a sparkling personality to earn a living.

Ignatius Reilly, A Confederacy of Dunces

We all know at least one Ignatius Reilly. He’s the “I don’t own a television machine” guy. The Middle Ages obsessive. The 30-year-old who still lives with his mom. The man who was born about a millennium too late. Like most other people who profess to be too good to participate in contemporary life, John Kennedy Toole’s pitiable protagonist uses his snobbery to disguise loneliness and insecurity.

Matilda Wormood, Matilda

Roald Dahl’s Matilda isn’t your standard nerd; she’s a bona fide child prodigy, who teaches herself to read at the tender age of three and is reading grown-up fiction before she starts kindergarten. Although she’s cursed with disgusting parents and a headmistress given to cruel and unusual punishment, Matilda does have the one thing every smart kid needs — a teacher who understands how special she is. Oh, and psychokinetic powers. Those help, too.

Ruprecht, Skippy Dies

Paul Murray’s tragicomic novel, set at an Irish boarding school, is bursting with bizarre characters. Easily the strangest is Ruprecht Van Doren, an awkward, overweight bully magnet who devotes his genius-level intelligence to the science of string theory, which he attempts to implement through a variety of implausible experiments. Skippy may be the book’s doomed protagonist, but it’s Ruprecht’s passionate, if misguided, studies that elevate it beyond the quotidien life of Seabrook College.

Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Doppelmeyer, Ghost World

Two outcast teenagers in suburbia, Enid and Rebecca are best friends on the cusp of adulthood, trying to find their way out of the town they’ve hated for so long. Enid in particular is too smart for her own good, with a dour wit and a self-protective tendency to criticize everyone and everything around her; Rebecca is less bitter. Beyond their token male friend, Josh, the girls are isolated, their obscure interests and negative attitudes preventing the high-school outcasts from finding their way as adults.

Hermione Granger, Harry Potter

Everyone who is even casually acquainted with the Harry Potter franchise knows that every member of the books’ central triumvirate easily qualifies as a geek. But for this list, we’re singling out Hermione, a brilliant student who’s endured her share of bullying, and who J.K. Rowling has often referred to as the smartest character in the series. Magic is great and all, but Hermione’s greatest asset has always been her raw intelligence and the knowledge that comes from diligent study.