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The Long Puzzling Absence of Junot Díaz

By (September 1, 2007) No Comment

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

By Junot Díaz
Riverhead, 2007

Though it perhaps ought not be said in mixed company, there’s no getting around the fact that young people run the world. True, it’s old people who have the money, and the positions of power, and the nuclear launch codes. And it’s true that the decisions made by old people from their positions of power have an unavoidable, disproportionate importance in the lives of the Earth’s inhabitants. Nevertheless, young people run the world. Money, prestige, influence: it’s been axiomatic for millennia that these sops are dismal substitutes for the basic commodity possessed by all healthy young people—vitality, energy, waxing, superabundant quantities of whatever it is that makes life life. Old people—and oldness does not always correspond to age, although it usually and predictably does—simply have less of the stuff. They can propose changes, but not effect them; pass laws, but not enforce them; start wars, but never fight or win them. The objectively right thing, then, would be for those with diminishing energy to recognize that fact and stand aside. Work still, of course, but do so in the periphery and during the off hours, and dedicate the bulk of the time to aiding the young people who really run things, but are in dire want of experience and wisdom.

That this is usually not done is evinced routinely, among other places (the Senate chamber comes to mind), in our nation’s literary organs and bookstores, which are apparently obliged to reserve an unholy amount of real estate for the venerable elder statesmen of the world of belles lettres. And we’re not talking about symbolic attention, not well-deserved accolades and homage being bestowed upon accomplished septua and octogenarians; on the contrary, this is a serious expenditure in money, publicity, and the public’s precious, ever-decreasing reading time on weak work sired in frailty. The abysmal irony is that these books are invariably about the loss of prowess and potency that accompanies old age, while their authors’ tedious, maundering prose serve as object lessons for that very theme. Old writers may perhaps conceive of epics, but they can’t write them, and we’re inundated instead with the exhausted, dithering, nearly indistinguishable latest from John Updike, Philip Roth, Alice Munro, Ward Just, Louis Begley—and though it’s painful to say—Toni Morrison, John Barth, William Trevor, Larry McMurtry, Gore Vidal, and many other sometime titans. These books are reflexively called “affecting” and “elegiac” and are forthwith disseminated throughout the public sphere where they do about as much good as moldy produce.

But just as men and women in decline should get out of the way, younger writers are obliged to harness their powers and summit the heights left unoccupied by the passing generation. Naturally, this is a far more burdensome expectation (though also an exhilarating one). It means there can be no dickering around in a protracted adolescence (a privilege only allotted to citizens of the world’s wealthiest countries), no indulging in tricks and frathouse inside jokes, no marketing facetious, know-it-all memoirs at the grand old age of 22, and no rationalizing away insufficiencies with the craven philosophy that all books are always failures. Young writers have to believe that if they don’t write imperishable masterpieces, no imperishable masterpieces are going to be written—and furthermore they have to think it matters one way or the other.

Sympathize with Junot Díaz, then, smart as it’s possible to be, enormously talented, raised with a fluency in both the English of the library and of the street, and adopted as the favorite son of that most magnanimous of surrogates, The New Yorker—and consequently freighted with the heaviest possible portion of the burden to be great. Díaz’s 1996 debut, Drown, a collection of loosely related stories, is by now something of a byword and sine qua non amongst people who read short stories, for the simple reason that it is written in a voice almost nobody had encountered before, and has no peer to this day. It’s not so much that the stories are great—though most are very good—but that they were rendered in an idiom that seemed newly minted and utterly unique. Through his alter ego Yunior, who either features in the stories or else seems to narrate them, Díaz blends formal, bookish English with east coast Latin-American slang, and the mixture is vulgar, cerebral, funny, and always animated. He writes about the Dominican Republic and the émigré neighborhoods of urban New Jersey, and as it is for other writers who have defined a setting with a voice—James T. Farrell for Chicago or Eudora Welty for Mississippi, for instance—there’s no mistaking one of Díaz’s paragraphs. This is from the start of the collection’s first story, “Ysrael”:

Rafa and I stayed with our tíos, in a small wooden house just outside Ocoa; rosebushes blazed around the yard like compass points and the mango tree spread out deep blankets of shade where we could rest and play dominos, but the campo was nothing like our barrio in Santo Domingo. In the campo there was nothing to do, no one to see. You didn’t get television or electricity and Rafa, who was older and expected more, woke up every morning pissy and dissatisfied. He stood out on the patio in his shorts and looked out over the mists that gathered like water, at the brucal trees that blazed like fires on the mountain. This, he said, is shit.

Worse than shit, I said.

Yeah, he said, and when I get home, I’m going to go crazy—chinga all my girls and then chinga everyone else’s.

The stories in Drown have the polish of tireless revision, but what makes them convincing it that their vernacular narration feels altogether effortless. These are, so it feels, autobiographical works, personally felt and naturally expressed, and therefore not only are they rarely boring but the characters in them feel quite real. And at the end of the book, almost like a teaser for things to come, is the long story “Negocios,” a perceptive, impressively empathetic work about the dealings (and as concerns the family left in the Dominican Republic, double-dealings) of a newly-arrived immigrant who works his way from Miami to New York, a story that seemed to offer a glimpse of the sort of novel Díaz was going to give us and was, no one doubted, hard at work finishing.

And then, as everyone knows, silence. Or almost silence—a few dutiful contributions to The New Yorker (one of which, “Nilda,” is Díaz’s best short story), but no more books for eleven years. The effect, oddly, was to further raise the significance of Drown in the eyes of the watchful, and to give it a weird, Rimbaudian luster, except that Díaz had not forsworn literature for business and venereal diseases but was, for most of that time, actually teaching creative writing. (Whether teaching creative writing yields the same results as forswearing literature is a conclusion pending a few more years of data, but it seems ominously plausible in Díaz’s case.)

The problem is that Díaz could no longer write principally for himself and his friends and family, primarily concerned with giving apt expression to his most intimate memories, loves, fears, and convictions. No, after the success of Drown (a success confined to insular magazine circles, perhaps, but no less intense for that) he was expected to write on behalf of everyone: Dominicans and Dominican-Americans, certainly; all Latin-Americans, whose voices in the art world don’t come close to representing their presence in the country; women, for whom Díaz has shown a particular wish to portray sensitively; social-conscious liberals, who want persuasive spokesmen for agreed-upon ideals (this is an era in which it is generally considered that important books must be political); and anyone who read Drown and was excited by the intelligence and vitality it appeared to promise for the future.

That’s an immense amount of expectations to satisfy, and demands an outlook fundamentally different—or so it must feel—than the one that inspired the high-resolution stories about Díaz’s childhood neighborhood and extended family. In the interviews Díaz has granted over the interim he has sounded distinctly flustered when the invariable question about the second book is put to him, but it’s not hard to intuit what he can’t very well say: something great and epochal was wanted from him, and he didn’t know how to write it with the material that most interests him.

Now, at last, the silence has been broken with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and the final product, evidently the subject of at least seven years of composition and tinkering (a sizeable chunk of it appeared under the same title in The New Yorker in December, 2000), displays all of Díaz’s virtuosity in bringing his settings and characters to life with crackling demotic prose, and also demonstrates his struggle to coherently fill a larger canvas while a multitude of people peek over his shoulder, deeply invested in his final product.

The novel centers on the fat, hapless, virginal Oscar de Leon of Paterson, New Jersey, who comes of age doing “the usual ghettonerd things”:

He collected comic books, he played role-playing games, he worked at a hardware store to save money for an outdated Apple IIe. He was an introvert who trembled with fear every time gym class rolled around. He watched nerd shows like “Doctor Who” and “Blake’s 7,” could tell you the difference between a Veritech fighter and a Zentraedi battle pod, and he used a lot of huge-sounding nerd words like “indefatigable” and “ubiquitous” when talking to niggers who would barely graduate from high school.

And most of all Oscar fixates on sex, the very thing that his appearance and personality ensure will always be denied him. Much of the novel is Oscar’s Calvary, and we follow from station to station of doomed crushes, disillusionments, and public humiliations (including a suicide attempt). That this worn path is entertaining is due entirely to Diaz’s rapid, high-decibel, often hilarious exposition (this novel is again narrated by Yunior, only timidly used here—he pops up in person now and again and then disappears omnisciently into the background). Here, Oscar has graduated from college, moved back home, and become a teacher at his Catholic high school, Don Bosco Tech:

Had Don Bosco, since last we visited, been miraculously transformed by the spirit of Christian brotherhood? Had the eternal benevolence of the Lord cleansed the students of their bile? Negro, please. The only change that Oscar saw was in the older brothers, who all seemed to have acquired the inbred Innsmouth “look”; everything else (like white arrogance and the self-hate of people of color) was the same, and a familiar gleeful sadism still electrified the halls. Oscar wasn’t great at teaching, his heart wasn’t in it, and all the boys of all grades and dispositions shitted on him effusively. Students laughed when they spotted him in the halls. Pretended to hide their sandwiches. Asked in the middle of lectures if he ever got laid, and no matter how he responded they guffawed mercilessly. How demoralizing was that? And every day he found himself watching the “cool” kids torture the crap out of the fat, the ugly, the smart, the poor, the dark, the black, the unpopular, the African, the immigrant, the strange, the femenino, the gay—and in every one of these clashes he must have been seeing himself. Sometimes he tried to reach out to the school’s whipping boys—You ain’t alone, you know?—but the last thing a freak wants is a helping hand from another freak.

The novel’s title is an overt reference to the great Ernest Hemingway story (and workshop darling) “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” In this story, Macomber finally asserts his independence from his vicious, termagant wife (the liberation is symbolized in his killing of a lion), and likewise in Díaz’s novel, Oscar will free himself—with an equally lethal result—from his status anxiety, loneliness, spineless fatalism, and of course his virginity. He begins this process while on vacation in the Dominican Republic, where he befriends and falls in love with a middle-aged former prostitute named Yvón.

But to elevate his book above its flat nerd-gets-lucky premise, Díaz interrupts Oscar’s story and travels back fifty years to Oscar’s mother’s childhood in Santo Domingo. This is at the height of the rule of Dominican despot Rafael Trujillo, and the country is wholly in the vise of what Díaz refers to as the Trujillato, the cruel, greedy, and capricious military and political organization that grew from the dictator’s authority. Oscar’s grandfather, a member of the landed upper-class relatively left alone by Trujillo on the condition of money and obedience, has the misfortune of raising a brood of attractive daughters in a city where attractive daughters are considered possessions of the state. When he refuses to showcase the girls at government functions, thereby denying Trujillo’s seigniorial privileges to them, he invites the dictator’s wrath, and the Trujillato falls murderously on him and his family.

Trujillo may be long dead when Oscar goes to Santo Domingo, but the system of abuse and corruption he legitimized is very much still de rigueur, though it might not be visible to weekend-tripping Americans. Yvón, it turns out, is the kept woman of a police captain, “one of those very bad men,” Díaz writes, “who not even postmodernism can explain away.” This is a country where “they call a bullet a cop’s divorce,” and for his attention to Yvón Oscar is savagely beaten by the captain’s heavies and then promptly flown back to New Jersey by his frightened family. The beating dwarfs any of the intimidation Oscar received in high school or college, and leaves the left side of his face partially paralyzed.

Yet this is the bullying that Oscar finally stands up to. To the horror of his family, he flies back to Santo Domingo and continues to woo Yvón, who is terrified and amazed. Now Yunior’s sleeping around (he had been a stud in college) seems wasteful and pathetic, the boys who taunted Oscar and the girls who disdained him shallow, the heartless rule of force in the Dominican Republic barbaric. A story about a fat kid trying to get laid has grown into a novel about love, defiance against organized brutality, and heroism.

* * *

So The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a book with admirable aspirations, charismatic writing, and a moving, memorable finish. It’s uncommonly wise, it features an undiluted and original voice, and it courses with life. But it’s also loose and unsure of itself and a great deal of its latent power escapes through the cracks of a creaky construction. What’s surprising is that, given how many years it’s been on the drafting table, the novel feels decidedly thrown together, almost hasty.

As we know, its central story was completed but for minor changes in 2000. Díaz added to that the episode with Oscar’s grandfather, to gain historical breadth, parallelism, and irony. He also added a section narrated by Oscar’s sister Lola, and this is very long and sensitive interpolation (indeed, Díaz so strains for sensitivity that Lola is the least interesting and flattest character in the book) that has no essential relationship to the plot. An introduction has also been inserted, a lot of gratuitous vamping about a Dominican folk curse called fuku, that both Díaz and the reader immediately forget about. And most egregiously, Díaz has attempted to give his readers a primer in modern Dominican history with the extensive use of footnotes.

This is especially frustrating. There was a time, before they became a mindless writer’s workshop vogue, that footnotes in fiction had a modicum of artistic merit. When David Foster Wallace used them to ludicrous excess in Infinite Jest at least there was a pointed aesthetic effect, even if that effect was goading and unrewarding. But their only point for everyone after, and most certainly for Díaz, is that they are easy. In writing a historical novel, as Díaz has, the fundamental art is in integrating necessary factual history into the narrative without obtruding on and dispelling the fabric of the invented world. Díaz has decided that his readers need to know about Trujillo’s legacy if they’re going to appreciate his story (there’s also a pedagogical impulse here: he’s irked that Americans are so thoroughly ignorant about Dominican history); but instead of revealing that history through the story—that is, doing a novelist’s job—he’s simply stapled the information onto the narrative in these sloppy, indiscriminate footnotes. It’s pure laziness (and it’s doubly upsetting because Díaz is a writing teacher and surely recognizes when his students are trying to get away with short cuts) and it has a distracting, depleting effect throughout the book.

The sense the reader ultimately gets is that Díaz was ambivalent and tentative about this novel even as he corrected its final proofs. Given the pressure, that’s understandable—and to some extent the reader shares Díaz’s relief in finally getting this book over with. Now hopefully, he can work assured in the knowledge that producing great books is, for him, less a matter of chance than of perseverance. And the rest of us can happily settle in to the regular habit of reading him.

Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, and thefanzine.com. He lives in New York City.