Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Junot Díaz, “The Pura Principle”

This is the fifth comment I’ve rapid-fired about New Yorker stories over the last few days. This time it’s about Junot Díaz’s “The Pura Principle” (TNY, Mar. 22, 2010). I had thought about publishing a single post, in which I’d refer briefly to each of the stories I’ve discussed. That was fitting, as not one of these stories seemed especially strong. Some, in fact, appeared particularly weak.

I won’t go into details about those that were published in the three issues after the March 22 edition, like the wispy and quirky fable by Janet Frame called “Gavin Highly” (April 5). Ben Loory’s “The TV” (April 12) is an amusing existential tale, which lost its way in the middle, when the man watching TV finds himself in a show about doctors. At that point, the story stopped being interesting, and it reminded me of Agent Smith in the Matrix, thus becoming what seems like a rather boring allegory of the ego absorbing the world like a black hole. There was also Joyce Carol Oates’s “I.D.” (Mar. 29), a story about a 13-year-old whose parents are a mess and who’s taken by the police to ID a corpse thought to be her mother’s. The stream of consciousness used in it was so mechanical and predictable that you can see the stitching: information presented askance, scenes told by snippets and interwoven with what happens in the time of the narrative. “I.D.” read like a writing exercise based on James Joyce’s stream of consciousness, and I didn’t find it compelling, not even at the presumably highly charged climax when the cadaver is revealed.

In any case, what made me change my mind, and prompted me to write story-by-story comments, was this piece by Junot Díaz. It bothered me.

I expected much more from a seasoned and talented author like Díaz. But I would toss this story into a heap that has been growing lately: that of “exotic” stories. The thrill of reading twisted tales about far-away places or exotic cultures (even if the exotic people live in New York) seems often to override concerns about quality. I’ve mentioned this before, with regard to Daniel Alarcón and Nam Le.

This doesn’t mean Díaz’s story was entirely bad. It’s about a teenager (Yunior) who deals with his brother’s leukemia. More than the leukemia, the problem is Rafa, the narrator’s brother, who is a lost cause, a reckless man spoiled by his mother’s lifelong habit of forgiving him for almost everything he does. Things turn rough when Rafa falls for a green-card-grubbing woman called Pura, who wheedles her way into marrying him. Rafa flouts the doctor’s orders (and his mother’s wishes) so egregiously that his mother finally stands tough and kicks him out of the house. Rafa falls ill later and has to go to the hospital. Pura doesn’t visit him. In fact, she disappears, but not before getting some money out of Rafa’s mother. Yunior is inflamed. The story ends when Rafa gets back at Yunior for standing up to him (now that Rafa is weaker, he doesn’t get to hector his brother); Rafa hurls a lock at Yunior from afar and nearly takes Yunior’s eye out.

The tone and the cast of characters are familiar from other stories published by Díaz. The language is often sharp, and some of the situations are funny or stimulating. But come on. This is The New Yorker. One expects the very best. With that in mind, some of the blunders were unforgivable.

Blunder number one is the choice of words. For starters, the narrator seems bent on squeezing as many fucks into a sentence as he can. Third sentence: “we didn’t know what the fuck to do, what the fuck to say.” But that’s not the blunder. Do we really find it plausible when that same narrator who bubbles with fucks goes on, in that same first paragraph, to describe her mother’s as an “event-horizon personality.” Astrophysics? And what about the “Madres de Plaza de Mayo” reference? He also describes his brother as someone who hasn’t been “the most rational of agents.” Economics? Over the course of two consecutive sentences, we stumble on “pulchritude” and “demotic.” Call me a maniac for consistency, but I just don’t find the narrator’s voice credible. Okay, of course, an academic can lace his conversation with as many fucks as he wants. But, in this case, those slips reveal too much of the MIT professor speaking through the tumult of Yunior’s slang.

Blunder number two is the excessive use of Spanish. There is so much of it that I wonder if English-language readers without an iota of Spanish can really follow everything in the story. Such a high dose of a foreign language is unnecessary. I would most likely abandon a story that had this much of, say, untranslated Polish slang. Someone could try to justify the Spanish in Díaz’s story by saying that people really speak like this in Dominican communities in New York, but it seems to be there to give the story an exotic feel. Take the second sentence: “No way of wrapping it pretty or pretending otherwise: Rafa estaba jodido.” Why? Why not just stick to a same language and use its expressive power to say this? It can be done.

This leads me to blunder number three: the mistaken use of Spanish. Not only is Spanish everywhere in the story, but mistakes are everywhere. This is scandalous in TNY, which is so good in its copyediting. Was there no proficient Spanish-speaking copy editor in New York who could look over the final draft of the story? Seriously. I mentioned some Spanish-language mistakes in another TNY story last year (the burden of the exotic again), but this time it’s much worse. I’ll play the obnoxious grammarian now and go through a list of those mistakes.
(1) The sentences “Dios mío, qué me has hecho?” and “Qué tú crees que ella busca por aquí?” are missing an opening question mark, required in Spanish.
(2) The diminutive for taza (cup) is spelled tácita in the story, which means “tacit.” What the author had in mind was tacita, no accent mark.
(3) The phrase “chín de respeto” carries an unnecessary accent mark. Chín is never written with an accent mark.
(4) The diminutive for india (Indian) is indiecita, not indiacita. Díaz wrote the latter. One can see why this mistake happened (it’s an irregular diminutive), but it happened still.
(5) The noun Cubano (meaning a person from Cuba) should have been written in lowercase: cubano.
(6) The diminutive for puta (whore) is putica. For some reason, the story swapped the c for a k, and wrote putika.
(7) At some point, Pura calls her mother-in-law cuñada. The right word is suegra. Cuñada means “sister-in-law.”
(8) The story says “la Doña asked.” If we’re talking of la Doña in Spanish, then Doña should be lowercased: la doña.

Has the thrill of the exotic prevailed over good literary and proofreading sense? Anyway, these blunders tie in with what I’ve written before, that the quality of TNY stories tends to waver. I’ll let that magazine’s fiction rest for now in the blog. Next up is a book on writing technique.

3 comments:

  1. Your post presents an interesting perspective on Diaz's story and the TNY as a forum for fiction as well. I'll have to go back and read what you wrote on the subject of "exotic stories" because I find this post particularly engaging. While I feel that the use of Spanish in this story WORKS (I speak some Spanish), I understand your point here. And I am surprised by the grammatical mistakes you picked up on! I, of course, never noticed them.

    You have reviewed several stories in the past week or so that I found to be among the most compelling of NY stories published in the past few months (Diaz, Claire Keegan, Kevin Barry). I find your comments interesting and enlightening. You have a good grasp of what makes a story complete and how and where a writer may have needed to pick up the slack, excise, or rephrase. Keep 'em coming! Intrigued to read yr next post.
    Salud!
    Omar

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  2. TLF: I find "exotic" stories obnoxious because they play up certain aspects that are sometimes decidedly fake (or wrong, or otherwise marred by the desire to present readers with a stereotypical image of otherness). This exotic element sometimes manages to raise a weak story out of the rejection pile. I've discussed this a few times on the blog. It'll be interesting to hear what you think.

    Díaz story wasn't bad, but the voice got to me. I may have unfairly lumped Keegan's story with others. I thought her story was particularly well crafted, and deserves a special mention. Egan's piece was good, too, at least in its voice and the general milieu. I didn't find Oates's piece nearly as intriguing as C. Garstang did. Still, I think TNY misses out on its chance to publish the very best fiction around. They could, if they wanted to.

    Thanks for your comments on the last few posts.

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  3. Marginalia: I just had to tag on this remark by Pablo Brescia in his short story "La manera correcta de citar" (in Se habla español. Ed. E. Paz Soldán & A. Fuguet. Miami, 2000).

    "Antes se metía inglés en el español para estar a la vanguardia. Y ahora, colmo de la paradoja, aparece el español en la literatura en inglés, para imprimirle un sello cultural que me causa mucha gracia, en el peor sentido del término: 'And I told him: M’hijo, don’t speak with your mouth full', o alguna otra tontería por el estilo" (p. 147).

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