THE RECEPTION THAT GREETED The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao showed us that perhaps all anyone needs to become a literary star is an "impressive high-low dexterity,” in A.O. Scott’s words, and, as per Michiko Kakutani, a "slangy, kinetic energy." It’s true: there’s flash and style and rhythm to Junot Diaz’s literary voice. His From Hell-quoting, skirt-chasing narrators straddle the line between macho and débil and are stuck ni aquí ni allá. In his specificity and irreverence Junot Diaz has succeeded at what all immigrant fiction purportedly does: finding the universal. Diaz’s words don’t so much open a "big picture window," as Kakutani clumsily claims, as they take a pickaxe to a monolith of historical and racial burden. His educated, streetwise charm was but a Trojan horse for social criticism. But don’t worry — there are jokes, too. Lev Grossman, among others, praised Diaz's humor, saying that Oscar Wao would just be sad if it weren't for its moments of levity. There was so much energy and life, in other words, in this story about the absence of true love.
But now what? His latest short fiction collection, This Is How You Lose Her, is a stopgap between novels (his science-fiction love story Monstro is in the works). It contains stories that have been published almost exclusively in The New Yorker, either as advance publicity for this book's release or as crumbs from the Drown period, and each touches upon now-familiar Diaz settings, in now-familiar turns of perspective. We gaze out on snowy and barren New Jersey, on lush and warm Santo Domingo; we run down the street after a scorned lover who is screaming at us in Spanish; we make love in basements, among pictures of families. Mothers loom and disapprove. Fathers leave and misunderstand. But if we focus only on his mastery of these now familiar archetypes, his conjuring of "different worlds," his buffet of "high-low" references, we aren't addressing the core of Diaz’s work. We cannot talk about Diaz's fiction without talking about rape and the love that victims subsequently seek. Consent and power are two of Diaz's great subjects, and those ideas are inexpressible, he might argue, without stories of sexual and intimate violation. When A.O. Scott calls this writing "sexy" and “diamond sharp,” he's not wrong, but that’s not all.
In a recent interview with The Boston Review, Diaz gave a reading of his most common narrative voice:
Why is Yunior such a dog? Just because? Or is there something deeper? Think about it: isn’t promiscuity another typical reaction to sexual abuse? Compulsive promiscuity is certainly Yunior’s problem. A compulsive promiscuity that is a national masculine ideal in some ways and whose roots I see in the trauma of our raped pasts. Like I said: it’s probably not there at all — too subtle. But the fact of Yunior’s rape certainly helped me design the thematic economy of the book.
The revelation that his most persistent voice comes from a history of sexual abuse is startling. This biographical detail is not on the surface even in Oscar Wao, a book that fixates on rape as its characters’...read more