i was thinking about what adjective could best describe junot diaz, since none of the usual ones seemed complimentary enough — good, brilliant, stunning, etc. etc. he exists in a universe that has left those words behind, tiny inscrutable dots in the rearview mirror. the word i wound up settling on was necessary. diaz’s writing, in part because of how good and brilliant and stunning it is and in part because of the ends to which he puts his brilliance, feels really necessary to me in a way few writers have.
so. drown. it is frankly absurd that someone’s first book is this good. one of the blurbs on the back says that sometimes a writer just appears fully-formed, like an accident of birth, and: yep! i picked up drown having already read the brief wondrous life of oscar wao, which is one of the most perfect and incredible works of art ever to grace our mortal sphere, and while drown (a collection of ten stories) doesn’t reach the dizzying, expansive, breathless heights of that novel, it is still recognizably the writer of 11 years later.
in fact, it is in about half the stories the same narrator — i had been meaning to read it in an abstract way but it got bumped higher on my list because i learned that a number of the pieces were in the voice of yunior, the witness to and brief participant in oscar’s story who relates the tale for most of that book. i kind of adore yunior, which should tell you something about how diaz is magic: aside from the brief hints of grown-up yunior we get towards the end of oscar wao, yunior is a womanizer and obnoxious and just generally kind of a dick. but i was so happy to see him again, or more accurately to hear his voice again, it was like being reunited with an old friend.
about the voice. first person is fucking hard, being as it is an act of style and characterization at the same time, and diaz’s is, i mean. no judgment but i will probably never really trust your taste again if you deny yunior his place among unforgettable first-person not-quite-heroes like huck finn, nick carroway, humbert humbert if you’re into that thing. yunior (and the other voices in drown) have more in common with huck than with the other examples on that list; like twain, diaz believes in the power of the vernacular and his characters are a statement of that faith as much as its fulfillment.
the main difference, for me, is that while i adore huck finn i don’t think of it as a beautiful book in any way, whereas there is a very real (and harsh and painful) beauty in diaz’s stories, stemming not from a fancy prose style (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) but from a remarkable ear for rhythm. not just the rhythm of language, although yes, his cadences are so lifelike and seamless that he almost makes it look easy until you think about it for half a second, but the rhythm of the story as a whole. he is really great at composition, i guess you could say. i took a sketch class once where we went to museums and the teacher pointed out how in 17th-19th century paintings they were always set up to give your eye a pathway through them, following this person’s gaze across the mast and stopping at that person’s hand, following the arm and then the line of the skirt etc. etc. until the painting had led you on a tour of itself. diaz’s stories feel kind of like that. with each one we’re given entry to someone’s world, and that person shows us what we need to see in a way so casual as to almost feel random but so elegant it’s like a dance.
diaz has a completely consistent voice himself but despite the fact that his characters mostly occupy similar spheres and have different backgrounds (one story is narrated by a neighborhood pot dealer who identifies as the local heroin dealer the narrator of a previous story) they are absolutely not the same people, and THAT is also really hard. even yunior recalling his time as a child in santo domingo vs. yunior discussing his adolescence in the states vs. yunior giving us the story of his father’s years in the states before his family came over, those are not all the same voice either (much like yunior as storyteller and yunior as oscar’s roommate were not quite the same in oscar wao).
also, i really love that he does not translate the spanish in his stories at all (though it’s possible i would feel different if i didn’t understand most of it, but that’s just because i’m lazy). partly it just works artistically because there would be no way to do that without breaking up the voice. but given the dominican tensions with the states, both in the dominican republic itself as relatively recently invaded country and in the states with the harshness of the immigrant experience, there’s a sense of “i’m not making this easy for you, because nothing about this was easy for us.” and also there’s the way that refusing to dwell on its own foreignness underlines that actually, this is also 100% part of america, one that can’t be ignored or “translated.”
ugh. i could go on all day. diaz is incredible, read this book. it is beautiful and ugly and funny and alive.