Friday, 17 September 2010

Junot Diaz: Drown

I expected the entries in this blog to be unconnected, stand-alone mini-essays on different books, but themes seem to be emerging. I argued that The Pesthouse deals with ideas of promised lands and immigration via a post-apocalypse survival story. Junot Diaz's 1996 short story collection Drown deals with the same ideas in a much more realistic way. In fact, the stories all give the impression of being, if not autobiographical, then the kind of thing that could be autobiographical by no great stretch of the imagination; the kind of story that happens all the time in the real world.

On the face of it, these stories fall in line with writers like Amy Tan in that they are very specifically about ethnic identity. Every narrator or protagonist in the book is either a young man living in the Dominican Republic or a young man who has emigrated from there to the USA. The final story in particular, "Negocios", is a sprawling immigrant narrative in which the narrator tells the story of his father, who abandoned him to seek his fortune in the US. It's a tale of poverty and disillusionment whose "hero" finds himself enslaved by a sub-minimum wage job, "angry at the stupidity that had brought him to this freezing hell of a country" (Diaz 179). The portrayal of America as a "freezing hell" where immigrants get cheated and starve recalls Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, but unlike Sinclair's politically charged novel (often dismissed as thinly veiled socialist propaganda) Drown never appears to have an agenda. Despite the poetic and subjective prose, you close the book with the sensation of having seen a series of well-timed photographs or a high-definition video, rather than having listened to the author talk for several hours. Before reading it I knew next to nothing about the Dominican Republic or its population in the US, and after reading it I still know next to nothing, but I feel as though I do. Not as if I've lived it, but like it's a real place, and they are real people, not abstract concepts.

So it's very much a piece of "immigrant literature". But it is somehow the universal themes of youth, family, and sex that take precedence. These protagonist are united by much more than their ethnicity. In fact, while I'm in the mood for comparing writers with other writers, Drown reminded me much more of Chuck Palahniuk than Amy Tan. In "Edison, New Jersey" a pool table delivery guy makes cutting observations on his company's rich customers: "Doctors, diplomats ... ladies in slacks and silk tops who sport thin watches you could trade in for a car" (122). The understated cynicism here reveals the US's class divide problems without screaming about them, and the mischief the narrator gets up to (such as stealing cookies and disposable razors when the customers are out) anticipates Fight Club by a couple of years.

There is more to this book than I have managed to discuss, and I fully recommend it to anyone who likes short stories, regardless of whether you have the slightest interest in the Dominican Republic.

Diaz, Junot: Drown, 1996, New York, Riverhead Books