Junot Diaz: “Monstro”

06/14/2012 § 3 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 4 & 11, 2012 (Science-Fiction Issue).

Ever since studying Drown in an alternative-fiction seminar, I’ve somewhat had the sense that Diaz, talented as he is, goes out of his way to shoehorn in the whole foreign-language-in-an-English-story so as to stand out. He no longer needs to do so, but it’s His Thing, now, never mind if so many of his characters sound the same and get themselves into similar troubles over the women they fall for. That’s how I feel about the use of science-fiction in Diaz’s story: it’s more of matter of what was required to get this story published in this issue than it is a matter of something that Needed to be done for the story itself, which is mainly about a nineteen-year-old student who falls for a girl named Mysty while summering back in the Dominican Republic (where his mother is ailing and the medicine’s cheaper). There’s some class stuff, too, in that he spends most of his time hanging out with his Ivy League classmate, the overwhelming wealthy Alex, a “flash priv kid who looked more like a Uruguayan futbal player than a platano, with short curly Praetorian hair and machine-made cheekbones and about the greenest eyes you ever saw,” whereas he’s “a nadie…, un morenito from Villa Con whose mother had made it big selling hair-straightening products to the africanos.”

But in essence, there’s the one story in the DR, and then across the way, in Haiti, there’s a slowly spreading infection known as La Negrura, the Darkness, which has sort of collectivized (and literally fused, in some cases) its victims: they cluster together and surreptitiously infect others and then, after the U.S. Rapid Expeditionary Force attempts to bomb all of them, mutate into “forty-foot-tall cannibal motherfuckers running loose on the Island,” monsters that, by the way, have created some sort of permanent EMP extending in a six-hundred-mile radius. And here’s the thing: just as the stories seem as if they might merge — which is necessary, as neither one is really fleshed out, and because the narrative implies that what he’s telling us now has already happened (“These days, everybody wants to know what you were doing when the world came to an end…. I was chasing a girl”) — Diaz ends it. Alex, Mysty, and our narrator are taking a Polaroid out to the border to see what’s what for themselves, and that’s the last line: “And what do we do, like even bigger idiots? Go with him.”

One of the reasons people dismiss speculative fiction, at least the one I’ve most heard, is that it’s lazy and sloppily plotted. Authors choose to write in the future because then they can make things up; they don’t actually have to know anything. In actuality, a good writer needs to know even more: they have to make reasonable extrapolations, and should ideally use our “evolved” society as a way of commenting on our own, present-day Earth. Diaz’s story isn’t going to win over any converts, then: what, after all, is it saying or showing us? Our main character never even interacts with this craziness; we’re left with a creative, even plausible causation, but there isn’t an ounce of effect, and that’s what we’re reading for. Mind you, it’s the plotting that’s lazy; Diaz’s writing is fine, even if it’s — as I said initially — a bit stylistically showy: “Coral reefs might have been adios on the ocean floor, but they were alive and well on the arms and backs of the infected. Black rotting rugose masses fruiting out of bodies.” Worse, the science-fiction elements have distracted Diaz from the human elements of his story; as I mentioned, the class stuff is glossily presented, the chasing of Mysty seems banal, and Diaz frequently has to spell things about the characters out because he hasn’t written any actual situations for them to interact with. Everything’s a summary, a build-up; at least The Postmortal has the decency to follow through and expand on its central concepts before obsessing over a girl. I’m reminded, too, of T. C. Boyle’s “Los Gigantes” (from the February 6, 2012 issue), which was wise enough to keep all the experimentation in the background of the protagonist’s experience; that sort of focus is sorely missing here.

A final note: Diaz throws around a bunch of phrases that he’s coined (“glypts,” “the Whorl,” “plep,” and “viktims”). I’m not sure why he bothers with any of them, particularly the degraded English present only in the word “viktims,” and it ends up being yet one more show-off-y distraction. In A Clockwork Orange, the language provoked a further separation between us and Alex, in Dune or Lord of the Rings, the foreign words were rooted in rich and well-considered lore, and even in, say, Brave New World, the shifts hinted at deeper significance. I admire Diaz’s confidence and well believe that the language of the future will have new words for the Web, television, texting, and more, but it’s symptomatic here of an author writing out of his element and flinging things together. Moreover, for monolingual readers like me, it makes the story even harder to follow: is it a Spanish phrase that I need to look up (I couldn’t find a translation for “Tu eres guapisima”), or is some future slang or nonce word?

Well, at least now I’ve got a better understanding of what to avoid when stepping beyond “reality.”

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§ 3 Responses to Junot Diaz: “Monstro”

  • Hi Aaron – In spite of the chopped-off ending (it’s a novel in progress; I’ve done plenty of ranting on that topic before) I liked this one. I thought the language was used well to create an atmosphere. But when I read this from you –

    “Diaz frequently has to spell things about the characters out because he hasn’t written any actual situations for them to interact with. Everything’s a summary, a build-up” –

    I kind of cringed. That’s the sort of thing people have told me, I have characters sitting around thinking about things, not doing things, and yeah, you’re right. We could see a scene with Alex in a bar being nasty to Dominican waiters, or developing photographs, and see the narrator with his mother. I guess those aren’t the foci of the work, though. See, that’s where the short story/novel problem comes in – in a short story, those would be scenes, but this (I’m assuming) more like exposition for the novel about what happens now

    But I’m so glad I read this, because it’s the first time I’ve understood what was meant by all the stuff people have been telling me for years about including more action. They aren’t talking about helicopters and forest fires – they’re talking about scenes where characters are acting in ways that are only described. So thanks, this helped a lot!

    I still liked the story, though. 😉 What can I say, I once wrote an end-of-the-world exercise that consisted of a guy sitting on a rock smoking a cigarette for 500 words.

    • Aaron Riccio says:

      Karen, I wouldn’t listen to all those people — there’s nothing *wrong* with using shorthand to give us a quick run-down on a character, especially in (as you say) a novel, which is going to be moving on to other things. The issue here, and it’s more than an excerpt problem (I hadn’t heard that Diaz was actually turning this into a novel), is that NOTHING really happens in this story. Everything is summary, or sketch, for what should come next — particularly the sci-fi elements — and so there’s no sense of what’s actually happening. When you move on to Egan’s “Black Box,” I think you’ll have a better sense of how the components — even the summarized ones — serve to inform us of the character, the situation, and to advance the world presented in the word.

  • Wren says:

    Great review here. Just wanted to note that if you haven’t figured it out already, “Tu eres guapisima,” is basically saying “You’re extremely beautiful”. Guapa + ísima (intensifier of the adjective).

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