The Exploding Planet of Junot Díaz
On a windy Thursday night in late February I stood in a faintly lit street in Harlem, in front of a modern building where Junot Díaz and his fiancée, Elizabeth de Leon, are staying. Their apartment has been furnished with an eye to clean but colourful design, with the exception of the wild, celebratory paintings of the Dominican artist Tony Capellán. Díaz’s warmth and energy haven’t waned over the years I have known him, but he has become more open and confident since the publication of his first book, the short story collection Drown.
In early March, Díaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was awarded a National Book Critics Award, and in April, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The night I saw him, however, he was simply happy to have finished the book.
Oscar Wao is a striking departure from the tight, economically written Drown. Díaz’s prose retains its vigour and verve, but there’s a new-found ebullience as his narrative sprawls and embraces the epic form. There is more extended use of Spanish than in Drown, and a lot more meta-writing and philosophical insight. The greatest innovation of the novel, however, is its conscious manipulation of genre.
With Oscar Wao, Díaz says, ‘my biggest evolution was the concept of “freedom from”’, by which he means freedom from ‘things people said you couldn’t do in a book, that were too dangerous’. Díaz found this freedom after reaching a ‘certain exhaustion’ with his writing, when he ‘couldn’t spend the energy between the lines’. Though people advised him never to write ‘a multi-generational family saga’ or a novel about a fat Dominican kid, though he was told that ‘the worst thing possible is to write a bunch of historical footnotes’, Díaz listened to none of this advice.
The result is a novel with surprising features – dysfunctional footnotes (Díaz credits Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Texaco for inspiring the device) and a happy tragedy with an unconventional hero.
Díaz’s agenda as a writer is a genre-busting one: he collapses and confuses old literary forms in order to create new ones. The narrative of Oscar Wao comments upon the problems of reader expectations as it parodies biography and history.
Díaz believes that writing should change our reasons for reading. ‘People are committed to their narratives of consolation,’ he told me, ‘so the coherent person, the coherent character, graspable, is something people are very committed to, that’s what they want. They’re, like, “please, sir, narrator or dictator, give me a coherent story that makes sense and I can encapsulate it, not too many silences and not too many lacunae, not too much aporia, please hook it up that way so I can be consoled”. I just don’t think people are that way.’
He goes on: ‘I think that at best our sense of what a human is is fragmentary. When I try to translate the human onto a simplistic axis like a book, I can do one of two things: I can pretend that I’m really giving you a full person, or I can accept the fact that you are getting nothing more than the most shattered transmission from across the galaxy of what is human.’ Díaz says that ‘accepting these limitations and saying, “hey, but isn’t that what is human”’ is something he believes in, and seems to be ‘the way we really deal with each other’. Human expression, he says, is like ‘short bursts of messages of who we are, a lot of it gets lost in the ether; most of us are asleep at the radio set when the transmission comes in.’
Díaz doesn’t buy ‘entirely full and rich characters’ in other people’s fiction, even though he succumbs to creating them himself. But he does believe that these characters fail to show how ‘fragmentary our sense of the world is and how the world resists giving us fully rounded narratives. The world tends to give us pieces, and then in our imagination, because of our desire and because of our need, we make them whole’.
I ask him whether obsessive narrative disorder is just a New York thing. He’s vehement that it’s not. ‘The world is not interested in consoling anyone with narrative,’ Díaz says. ‘The world is like, oh, you’re going to get married, well, your car just got blown up. We’re the ones who say, “It’s for the best, God loves us, we’re going to put a spin on what in some ways makes no fucking sense”.’
I’d like to think it’s the writer’s job to clean up the mess the world makes, to provide us with a version of reality that brings us to a place of peace. But I can’t get away from the awful truth of destruction and the fact that we often can’t write around it.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao gives us catastrophe and asks for explanation. Oscar, the novel’s protagonist, is dead before the book begins. The way in which Díaz spins a narrative out of Oscar’s death – through multiple narrators – makes the book interesting on a level beyond mere narrative. According to Díaz, Oscar is ‘a Frankenstein monster in the sense that he’s not a monster or beast, but he’s the subject or person that someone else is trying to piece together’.
Oscar may serve as a metaphor for recovering a lost Caribbean land and its troubled colonial history. Diaz says that Oscar Wao is ‘all about the US’, and Oscar’s story is an American one that can only be a violent intrusion and extrusion into the Dominican landscape. The American relationship to the Dominican Republic is interventionist, like Oscar’s relationship with his lover, Ybón, an older Dominican prostitute, with whom he falls in love. To recover Oscar’s story is to find an entangled network of relations that pulse with past actions, crimes and acts of violence.
Díaz says, ‘For those of us doing this kind of work, what we’re thinking about is what it means to recover lost narratives, lost people, lost memories. When we enter historical cracks we have to accept that what we bring out is not necessarily going to resemble anything we wish it to resemble.’
Díaz asks his readers to consider revising their relationship to history and what it means to construct it — the history of a character and even the history of a nation. He explains that ‘this is a book about dictatorship and about the impact of people’s desire for authority, and how in some ways that weird desire for authoritative narratives, for narratives of purity, consolation and cohesion – and our desire for much about dictatorship – feed authority. There’s a relationship there.’
No matter what constitutes so-called reality, there is mystery in the process of recovery because the dead seem less dead in the act of storytelling. And this is the historical crack into which we can insert folklorish or magical phenomena.
Oscar Wao works as a kind of séance for Oscar, and is itself a form of the baca, which, Díaz explains, is ‘a mythical figure in the Dominican Republic. A baca is a shape-shifter with no original form, but everyone knows the baca. In some ways it’s the Caribbean essence. In the Dominican Republic it’s a part of folklore, it’s like, what the hell is a baca? You can’t define it, but you can describe it once you see it, and I wanted a book like that, with all these built-in oppositions.’
Though the baca appears in Oscar Wao as a minor reference, Díaz says that it serves as the ‘operating spirit of the novel. I wanted to write a shape-shifter. I wanted to see if it was possible to create a book, that, no matter how you tried to describe it, if you just took one inch around it, suddenly the book would resist your entire description.’
Díaz tells me about his new project.
‘I want to write a book where I get to blow up the planet and kill off the whole human species,’ he says. ‘I’ve basically been obsessed with apocalyptic narrative, movies and books and TV shows. I always had this obsession with the end of the world, and part of it came from mysterious places inside of myself and part of it came from growing up in the 1980s, which was the most apocalyptic period you could ever live under.’
With this novel he is not trying to break out of genre – it’s a science fiction book. Although the novel is called Tokyo Rose it doesn’t take place in Tokyo – ‘that’s just the project designator, that has very little to do with it,’ he says. ‘It’s a novel that springs from my apocalyptic anxieties and I’m trying to write about the end of the world in a very specific sense. We watch X-Men and these movies. They play with certain things but they don’t follow them to their supreme and ultimate logic. For example, they have this idea of humans and other species in competition with each other. They raise the competition but then diffuse it. They kind of hassle and wrastle with each other and then everything returns to status quo. Well, I’m sort of imagining there are two human species: one of them ours, and the other slightly different.’
I interrupt to say that it seems ethnic politics will be a theme in this book, too. He shoots back, smiling, ‘I feel like, what else could it be about? You have two races trying to eliminate each other…but yeah, it’s a genre book, you have these two races who do crazy things to each other and outlandish and terrible things happen. I’m trying to blow up about four or five cities.’
I ask whether Tokyo Rose is representative not so much of Díaz’s evolution as a writer but of his devolution.
‘I actually don’t know,’ he says. ‘I come from an area of the world that has been blown up so many times, that has suffered so many damn apocalypses, where literally all sorts of weird science-fiction stuff happens, from the breeding of human beings to the first contact with aliens. There are all these things inscribed over the Caribbean, and I think the only way for me to get at them is to re-imagine them among genre lines. It’s a way to have fun with these historical movements while simultaneously bringing a reader in to a deeper debate or exploration without triggering their defences. If you’re like, “I’m going to talk about slavery”, you automatically lock out ninety percent of the readership because everyone’s defences are so high around these issues – it’s like historical fatigue or historical trauma fatigue – but if you couch the historical trauma in genre terms, then people will read that shit till the cows come home’.
I finally ask what is the most emotionally important thing to have happened to him since we last met. He says without hesitation, ‘Finishing this book. It nearly drove me insane. I spent eleven years on it and I thought I’d never finish it. I look back on it and it was a decade of total fucking darkness, and inside of my heart I was so tormented by the fact that this book might not come together.’
I ask, ‘Why did you need it so badly?’
He answers simply, ‘Because it’s what I wanted. I dreamed it. As kids growing up, most of us don’t get a chance to succeed when we have a dream. Most of the time we dream something and we eventually recognize that the spirit is strong but the flesh is weak. The reality is that we can’t realize our dreams. For once I wanted to have a dream – and this shows the impoverishment of my childhood – that I could bring to life in a concrete way. This is where I drew a line in the sand. I had a vision of a book and a real Caribbean approach to a novel. Whether it was new or not I didn’t care.’
I ask what he means by a ‘Caribbean approach’, and he says, ‘This is a book which is more about what’s missing.’
‘And that’s Caribbean?’ I ask.
‘No,’ Díaz says, ‘I just think this has been a strong element in the Caribbean. I’m not just saying that’s the exclusive bailiwick of the Caribbean, I just think in the Caribbean ninety-five percent of who we are has been evaporated due to historical trauma. I thought I could write a novel where inside it was a secret book stitched together of all the silences.’