Junot Diaz: “Miss Lora” from The New Yorker, 4/23/12

New Yorker illustration by Kristian Hammerstad

New Yorker illustration by Kristian Hammerstad

You were at the age where you could fall in love with a girl over an expression, a gesture. That’s what happened with your girlfriend Paloma—she stooped to pick up her purse, and your heart flew out of you.
That’s what happened with Miss Lora, too.
It was 1985. You were sixteen years old and you were messed up and alone like a motherfucker. You were also convinced—like totally, utterly convinced—that the world was going to blow itself to pieces. Almost every night you had dreams that made the ones the President was having in “Dreamscape” look like pussy play. In your dreams the bombs were always going off, evaporating you while you walked, while you ate a chicken wing, while you rode the bus to school, while you fucked Paloma. You would wake up biting your own tongue in terror, the blood dribbling down your chin.
Someone should have medicated you.

Hello, I am Zin, and I get to do this story because it is second person! And Junot Diaz makes some very interesting comments about second person!

The story itself, well, what is there to say? You can read it online, that is what there is to say! I am a little bit intimidated by Junot Diaz, seeing as he is a genius and all, so this is the first time I have read one of his stories! I hate to say it, but he does not seem like a genius to me! That is not really mean, because I am just Zin and he is Junot Diaz. But it is a kind of routine story, after all. What makes it interesting to me is how he talks about his use of second person! Maybe that is where the genius is for this story!

Yunior is sixteen and his brother has just died of cancer, so he is sad (these brothers were introduced before, in the story “The Pura Principle” which is also online). Yunior keeps imagining the world is about to end in a huge mushroom cloud! The story is set in 1985, while the Soviet Union was still the Evil Empire. Maybe, with his brother dying, it feels like his world is exploding! Miss Lora is a neighbor and a high school teacher. She is too skinny and very muscular, like she works out. But she and Yunior hook up, as the kids say. Now, that would have been creepy even in 1985, but in the story, it seemed perfectly fine. Not the sort of thing you would bring up at Sunday dinner (it is a secret affair) but not like child abuse or statutory rape, which it might be depending on the age of consent in New Jersey! But those things often seem “ok” from the inside – how many kids say “but we are in love” when these things come to light? I am very torn on this, because Yunior seems to benefit from it, and he breaks away over time, and goes to college, and is ok, he has relationships, so it is not a problem for him later. I think maybe it helped him heal from losing his brother! But I am not ok with being ok with it!

That is one thing Diaz says in the interview, because he knows some people will come down hard on Miss Lora if they see her as taking advantage of Yunior:

I had hoped to produce a piece of art that allowed the reader to experience a number of contradictory streams of feelings simultaneously. Sure, it would be swell if someone got to know Miss Lora before they judged her, or if their judgment was overturned by reading the story, but it’s also cool if a reader judges and knows the character simultaneously and neither of these experiences alters or counteracts the other. In a culture like ours, obsessed with its dichotomies, giving folks the opportunity to work out their simultaneity muscle is a worthy goal.

I thought that was very interesting, because that is exactly how I experienced it! I guess my simultaneity muscle is in good shape!

Now to the second person part of it, because that is what is really good here: I almost did not notice the second person after a very short time. If I remember my terminology, it is in what Brian Richardson calls “Standard” and what Monika Fludernik (oh, Monika, it has been a long time, and now I mention you twice in two days) calls “Reflective” second person – “You did this, then you did that.” It is also in past tense, so it is, to me, almost like he is talking to himself, maybe, in the future, with a “memoir” quality. Looking back, doing the “closure; thing, saying goodbye to a person who was so important to him at one time but now he is moving on but needs to tell this story first. Maybe that contributes to the affair being ok, because he is obviously ok, so there is less of a tendency (for me) to think this is something horrible that is being done to him. There is danger, though, because people should not become blasé about child abuse! But in this particular case, would it have been better for him to have her arrested? That simultaneity muscle! Embrace Ambiguity! And second person is considered “subversive” and so is getting the reader to feel sympathetic with a teacher sleeping with a student, so I think it all works together!

And this is how Diaz came to use second person:

I really needed distance from this story. Every time I wrote in the first person it was just too close. Tried third person, but that flopped as well. Second person ended up being the only way to get through. I guess I wanted my narrator to be “in” the story, but also to be able to comment on his younger self a little. That was the plan, at least. Second person, I’ve always noticed, has the distinction of being both intimate and repellent at the same time. A quick way of drawing the reader close but also hard to sustain for any length of time. Only so much a person likes being addressed as “you” by a complete stranger. I knew I’d lose people with the approach, but I was going to lose people anyway. That’s the nature of fiction: despite all our lofty claims of universality, no piece of art is for everyone—which is why we have so much art, so that everyone has a chance of finding something that moves them. I figured some people somewhere might connect with the tale even in second person.

This has nothing to do with second person, but I like his attitude, and it is important for writers to know that they can not please everyone! That is one thing I need to learn more, I tend to take every critique with equal weight and change everything and then I am frustrated because it is not the story I want to write any more! It is a hard balance, taking and rejecting suggestions, and maybe for me the hardest thing about workshopping, which might be why I do not do it any more. But I have to remember that when you are Junot Diaz, you can pretty much do what you want; Zin, not so much, I need some help. Simultaneity again! But here it is not so comfortable.

But back to second person! I kept saying, “Yes, yes!” while reading that paragraph! The commenting on his younger self, that was the “talking to himself” plus memoir I noticed. And when he talks about second person being intimate and repellent, yes, Fludernik also talked about how second person affected intimacy in both ways in the story “You.” When I talked to Marko Fong and Thomas Kearnes about their stories, they both used second person in different ways to affect the intimacy level, Marko to show alienation of the protagonist, and Thomas to increase the connection between reader and protagonist! And somewhere I could swear someone, Richardson probably, said second person switches between first and third (whereas first person plural manages to be first and third at the same time) so that affects the closeness as well!

I do think second person helped this story, but the problem with it was not second person but that it wasn’t much of a story, a kind of Latin bildungsroman with the ever-popular experienced older woman introducing a teenaged boy to the glories of sex. The brother and the fear of bombs add a dimension to it, a kind of life-raft thing, but still, it is not very unique in plot. I do think it was interesting for other reasons, though, and that is fine! And now maybe I will not be so intimidated by Junot Diaz in the future!

And: I have to say we did not plan it this way, but now we have two posts in a row of New Yorker stories by Latino men about sexual women from the pov of boys growing up! Even the art is similar! The other story is much older, and it is a total coincidence, we did not plan it this way! Sometimes this happens, there was a week of India stories, I think, and now Latino stories! But I think it is worth noting that I noticed it, and would I notice if there were three stories by white American-born men about middle-class married couples breaking up? Probably not, since there probably have been weeks just like that! And I think what I notice is something I need to notice!

[Addendum: this story appears in BASS 2013; I don’t have much to add to Zin’s comments, so I’ll let it stand. — karen]

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2 responses to “Junot Diaz: “Miss Lora” from The New Yorker, 4/23/12

  1. Pingback: Changing the Way I Read | A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: BASS 2013: Closing the Cover | A Just Recompense

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