Friday, January 29, 2010

Drown, Junot Díaz

For quite some time, Amazon has been recommending that I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and, at this point, I feel as if I’ve trained Amazon well enough to trust it. I was rather convinced I owned this book and that I even knew where I managed to hide it, but when I went hunting through my stacks I came up empty handed. Realizing, then, that I’d not be reading the book quite yet, I decided to dive into Junot Díaz’s debut, a collection of short stories entitled Drown. The stories center around the experiences of various men (and boys), with a heavy emphasis on the immigration experience. For the most part this book had me wondering about the hype and, occasionally, it left me cold.

Authenticity issues: I think it’s challenging to narrate from a child’s point of view and I certainly find myself questioning the authenticity of a child narrator’s voice from time to time. I’ve not yet been able to articulate what I think constitutes authenticity and I suspect it’s deeply personal, depending a lot upon the kind of child you were and the kind of children you continue to surround yourself with. However, just one story into Díaz’s collection and I was already having the debate, which is a good enough sign that I found the narrative problematic enough not to be fully immersed. Other stories, like “Fiesta, 1980” felt a little more successful in this regard and, fortunately, there is a wide range of narrators so it is not as if this was a collection-wide issue for me.

An (irrational) aversion: If I weren’t writing this so late I would say, with absolute certainty, that no fewer than 100 MFA programs had students churning out stories on the Raymond Carver model of short story. The thing is, it’s not even so much that I think Raymond Carver is bad, but he certainly never thrilled me so I’m not particularly moved to see any number writers pumping out Raymond Carver with a light sheen of something-ness (be it race, gender, religion, neighborhood, region, etc.) being the only deviations. The first story, “Ysrael” felt to be the most Carver-esque of the bunch, although I certainly felt the influence.* Other stories in the collection are a fairly light wash and didn’t feel altogether complete.

A fury: There are a lot of words out there not to be uttered in polite company because they are offensive, hurtful slurs. Ultimately, I think that whether or not these words can be used or reclaimed is something to be decided upon only by members of that group. I have lived in Dominican neighborhoods and taken trains with Dominican kids and teens. I am fully cognizant of what kind of language they use. However, the language that Diaz chooses to insert to capture these characters is a deliberate construct and I’m not convinced the language he picked is necessary. Further, it’s somewhat telling that use of slurs used against certain people is somehow meant to be indicative of racism, but dropping it casually into conversation is not. Frankly, Díaz isn’t Flannery O’Connor. A reader can’t just blow past him with a “Well, but times have changed.” By the point we were a few times in, I stopped to do my dishes. I cleaned my living room floors. I scrubbed the bathroom toilet. Cleaning is one of those things I hate to do most, but here I was doing it because I was so profoundly disturbed and firmly cast out from the story reading experience.

This book really made me wish I were the kind of reader that could give myself permission to walk away from books, but I'm still at the point where I convince myself if I just keep going, a book will get better. I really wanted to love this Drown. After all, I don’t think I’ve nestled down with short stories since Story magazine folded quite some time ago. And certainly, a lot of people loved this collection. Even people who are passionate about books I love. But I simply wasn’t blown away enough by to push past the points that disturbed me.

Rating: 5/10**

Genre: Literary Fiction

Pages: 208

* I tend not to read reviews or quotes on books I buy because I don’t want to be unduly biased, but if only I had I probably would have approached more cautiously. After all, there was pretty much a note from a reviewer stating “Someone from the Carver School Ahead.”

** Really, I’d almost love to give Drown a 4/10, but it was technically proficient in ways that a book like Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters was not, and there are stories that are quite memorable, at least in part.

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