Junot Díaz is Just Fucking with Us

In this week’s New York Times Book Review, Fiona Maazel criticizes a novel called What We Are by Peter Nathaniel Malae. For our purposes, all you need to know is that the narrator is named Paul, and he toggles between “high” literary diction and “low” slang.

In speech, this toggling says much about Paul: he contains multitudes and can assimilate as well as the next guy. In narrative, it comes off as an instability in Paul’s voice. Would the same narrator who belabors his penis (“The boot. The package. The wood. The johnson. The rooster”) also relish the setting sun in prose elegant and restrained, as in: I “place my line of vision straight above the establishment where finally a beautiful saffron mass of sky rolls west”? Well, sure, but maybe not again and again. It’s human, even welcome, to enjoy Bach and Tupac Shakur, both; less so to narrate as if you were both.

What I want to know is: Why don’t people say the same thing about Junot Díaz? His Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was a garbled mess of literary affectations, ghetto slang, and Tolkien references, and we gave it the Pulitzer Prize. Díaz not only gets away with these voice mistakes—he gets accolades for them.

Here’s a breakdown of Díaz’s tactics from his latest story in The New Yorker.

1. Arbitrary juxtaposition of high and low culture:

“My brother had never been the most rational of agents, but this one was the ill zinger.”

The cultural mash-up is Díaz’s basic technique. But he seems to choose the components at random, and their meaning can be overwhelmed by the audacity of the contrast.

Also, a number of his verbal flourishes — like the word “zinger” — function as oblique references to the life of a writer, even though his narrator, as far as we know, is not a writer. (See the example about Gothic fonts below.)

2. Interchangeable terms dropped into a sentence to mark it as culturally Dominican:

“She went so over-the-top Jesucristo that I think she would have nailed herself to a cross if she’d had one handy. That last year she was especially Ave Maria.”

You can almost hear the italics on the exotic words.

3. Interchangeable terms dropped into a sentence to mark it as culturally “geeky”:

“She was the tiniest person, but she posted up on him like Gigantor.”

Any reference to an oversize character in TV, comic books, etc. would have worked here. It makes no difference that he chose Gigantor in particular. Díaz leaves holes in his writing where a certain type of word (a Spanish word, a slang term, or a pop culture reference) will suffice, regardless of what it is, specifically.

4. Unnecessary big words:

“Guapísima as hell: tall and indiacita, with huge feet and an incredibly soulful face, but unlike your average hood hottie Pura seemed not to know what to do with her fineness, was sincerely lost in all the pulchritude.”

Pulchritude?

5. Language clichés and cultural clichés, sometimes both at once:

“No matter what the fuck he pulled—and my brother pulled a lot of shit, a lot of shit—she was always a hundred percent on his side, as only a Latin mom can be with her querido oldest hijo.”

Just… come on.

6. And finally, remember the line from Fiona Maazel about showing that you enjoy both Bach and Tupac Shakur? Well, how about showing that you enjoy both eccentric typefaces and Tupac Shakur?:

“When it came to my brother, it was written across her face in 112-point Tupac Gothic.”

Listen. We all speak in different registers. We all use different voices depending on the situation. It’s perfectly reasonable to encounter all of Junot Díaz’s contrasting styles in the mind of a single narrator. But we’re not in the mind of a narrator. With Díaz, we’re always hearing a narrator speak. That’s a big difference. There is simply no way a person would have occasion to speak like this. It’s deliberately schizo. It’s a voice that only a New Yorker editor (and the Pulitzer Prize committee, apparently) would be out-of-touch enough to believe.

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9 Comments

Filed under Close Reading, Suck It New Yorker

9 Responses to Junot Díaz is Just Fucking with Us

  1. dannycolorado

    for what it’s worth i’m really sick of the way you pick on Junot Diaz all the time.

  2. john

    Junot Diaz is the most overrated writer in American. Substitutes substance for Dominicanisms. Doesn’t even have a true mastery of street lingo, just enough to fool the Pulitzer committee, and most critics, who have never stepped foot in the inner city.

  3. Daisy

    Actually, I can imagine a Dominican-American with Diaz’s background speaking like this. Drown depressed me after a while with the misery, dysfunction and sense of going nowhere.
    I liked Oscar Wao, though the ending was a bit thin, and the characters would have gained from being more 3-d and complex.
    It did not deserve a Pulitzer Prize at all. I’m afraid the committee is overly impressed by creative multiculturalism. Diaz is a good writer, but this can’t hold a candle next to other Pulitzer winning novels, and if I were Diaz I’d really be embarrassed about winning simply because of having a unique Latino voice.That smacks of exoticism, and there’s simply no dignity or respect in that.When Diaz merely glances at Vargas Llosa, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Hemingway, or Umberto Eco novlel he must blush for shame. Oscar Wao is just not in the same category as these novelists’ best work. Maybe in the future Diaz will get there, but Oscar Wao is not the book. Hopefully in time he will produce a truly Pulitzer Prize worthy novel.

  4. Anonymous

    Amen to finally hear someone speak the truth about the over-rated boy wonder, Junot Diaz.

  5. CCV

    Anyone who disses on fiction The New Yorker praises is okay in my book.

  6. This dude is fucking garbage. He really is.

  7. anon

    Have to agree. Half way through the book am still waiting for the pulitzer level quality to materialize. I think he can spin a good yarn, but pulitzer? So many brilliant works out there, and this was a winner??? No offense, but recounting the history of a dictatorship through the fleshy folds of tits and ass does not a literary masterpiece make. Thanks.

  8. Elise

    I find this article refreshing. I just read “This is how you lose her” and, while it is in the and a nice and good book, I could not understand at all the enormous hype.

  9. Daisy

    I can’t imagine that Diaz would feel comfortable in a room with Vargas Llosa, Javier Marias,Garcia Marquez or Jorge Franco. (And if Bolano were alive?! Please.)
    Hopefully he’d have the decency to blush. Hopefully.

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