Friday, August 28, 2015

Drown by Junot Diaz

Slice-of-life fiction, particularly literary fiction, seems to me difficult to get excited about.    Trying to make the minutiae of every day life poignant is a daunting task to say the least.  Essentially the author attempts to answer the question, "How was your day?" and make their answer genuinely compelling to a third party.  It shouldn't work.  More often than not it doesn't.  

Not so much style or voice, but rather the foreignness of what's being depicted and the immediacy in which a culture is conveyed this book, an awesome collection of short stories, reminded me of The Buddha in the Attic.  Stay with me I can explain this…  

In Ysrael, and it's companion story No Face, a boy who's face has been severely scarred by an incident with a pig that now causes him to wear a mask, sets the tone perfectly.  It's light (most all of Diaz come across as light regardless of plot or themes involved) introduces us to the culture that main character Yunior is from whether or not the culture is in the Dominican Republic or New Jersey, and perfectly illustrates things through the eyes of a child.  

That last bit I found very important for a large part of the collection.  Children don't judge people, situations, and beliefs the same way as adults do.  More often than not they accept things just as the way they are.  And so in Ysrael we don't see two bad kids misbehaving, teasing, and bullying; we see merely the facets that make up their life and we see it objectively.  

Aurora was the only story outside my comfort zone.  We all know about drugs, sex and poverty and the cliches about the people involved, but damn, Diaz really puts you there.  It was more compelling than I wanted it to be.  

Aguantando, which I liberally translated as Endurance, does so much to place you in the moment and that is perhaps why there is so much room to be surprised.  We see Yunior's early life without a father.  How he saw his life, how not having a father affected him and his brother, his mother, we even see a bit of the reality that Junior can't convey.  And in the end, as if to remind us to get our adult sensibilities out of Diaz's prose and not to put things into perspective as a child can't, we see a single paragraph or two of the hope and sentiment and the romance that Yunior maintains when he conjures a meeting of himself and his father.  The contrast isn't subtle and it's used to great effect.  

He has a rare gift that I can't convey but, two or three words in and I promise you'll have to finish reading.  Walking away isn't an option even when the subject matter may be a bit of a turn off for you.    

Diaz's casual revelations of subject matter that is a really big deal to the reader but of no consequences to the those involved in the story is superb.

I didn't know you could read.
I was nine and couldn't even write my own name.
Yeah, he said quietly.  Something I picked up.  Now go to bed.
"page 82.

That's really good out-of-context.  I'm just saying… 

Much like the stories' characters you have to expect to be constantly surprised by the circumstances that Diaz characters lives are subjected to.  You may think you're reading about the world one misses out on when leaving the neighborhood and going to college when seemingly out of no where you are shown ones first homosexual experiences.  "Twice.  That's it."  Being my favorite line from the title story.  

How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie is a hysterical tutorial that is as absurd as the title.  Boyfriend was perhaps the most universal story told while the specifics do encompass a bad break up and why it hurts is familiar to anyone. 

These stories are less about narrative and plot and more concerned with the immediacy of letting the reader experience whatever event the characters are currently going through.  Back to my Otsuka reference, Drown doesn't share the collective 'we' voice, but you do get the feeling that the stories and characters depicted certainly aren't unique to anyone one person but shared by many from similar backgrounds.       

There are no stories here that are 'at his best.'  Everything is this collection is extraordinary; it very well may be the only short story collection that I own where every single piece of writing is top notch.  Not a single word wasted.    

1 comment:

Marion said...

As you showed here with your excerpts, he creates a wonderful, immediate voice in his story-telling, too.