Reading Matters: Public #Respect for Writers

I went to my Fiercely Independent Community Bookstore on Friday evening for a reading by Maine resident Eleanor Morse, author of the recently published White Dog Fell From the Sky. Typically, about 25 to 40 people attend these readings, and most show up at the last minute. The reading at 7pm was to be preceded by a half hour of what was billed as “Zimbabwean music” which could’ve meant anything from a recording to the Maine Marimba Ensemble (none of whom are Zimbabwean but they specialize in traditional and contemporary Zimbabwean music). I figured I’d listen to the music, snuggle into a corner seat out of the way of latecomers, and if the music was canned, I could always, ahem, find something to read.

It didn’t work out that way.

At 6:32 the main room of the store was jammed. Forget sitting – there was barely room to stand. The instrumentalist and vocalist were indeed playing and singing from the side room. I wandered back and thought I’d snagged a reasonable spot to stand.. but they kept coming, and coming, and coming… I ended up on the steps to the basement. I couldn’t see the table where the speaker would be, or the musicians, or, really, anything other than a wall of people in front of me. I had to leave; I was getting claustrophobic, and I wasn’t going to be able to see or hear anything from where I’d ended up.

Now, it might sound like I’m complaining, but I’m not – I’m rejoicing! On this Friday night in January, in Maine, at least 100, perhaps 150 people came out to hear a 62-year-old female author talk about her novel set in Botswana during South Africa’s Apartheid. It helped that Oprah listed it as a Must-Read for January 2013. It helped, of course, that she’s a local (she’s from Peak’s Island, and the store owner said the latest ferry had deposited half of the island’s winter residents in time for the event). And I suppose it helped that we’re in our January Thaw and it was well above freezing. But still, the enthusiasm of that attendance, the mellow intensity in that store, more than compensated for any disappointment I felt at missing the talk.

This is good news.

Skip to Saturday morning, with me working on calculus (yes, I’m taking yet another math course) and half-listening to UP with Chris Hayes, part of the weekend-morning liberal porn block on MSNBC. I could’ve sworn I heard him say George Saunders would be at the table next, which, of course, would be silly; UP features political, economic, and social policy wonks, activists, commentators, and academics, not fiction writers, not even fiction writers known for their anti-consumerism viewpoints.

But it was indeed George Saunders, whose recently-published collection Tenth of December includes several terrific stories I’ve read from TNY and BASS, like the great title story, the truly astonishing “Semplica Girl Diaries” and the heartbreaking “Home.”

But it wasn’t just George Sanders. It was also Ayana Mathis, whose The Twelve Tribes of Hattie I started last week. And Victor Lavalle, who I’m not familiar with (but perhaps I should be; The Devil in Silver looks interesting), and Michael Chabon whose name I seem to have been mispronouncing all along.

Four literary fiction writers. On a political commentary show? Yes – discussing President Obama’s political narrative, multiple voices, a foot in two worlds… politics and literary theory collide.

It’s all available online [addendum; no, it isn’t, just one segment is still available here] in four six-minute segments. Yes, it is political. Yes, everyone there likes Barack Obama. Yes, there are some places they could’ve gone, maybe should’ve gone, but didn’t. But the storytellers are gathered around the Pastry Plate (which is so popular to viewers, it has its own Twitter account with 2000+ followers; no, not me, I have enough trouble following people, let alone carbohydrates) to talk about storytelling, and they do.

Some highlights:

Section introduction (Chris Hayes):

Perhaps more than any other national political feature in recent memory, Barack Obama has used speeches and big rhetorical set pieces to define his character, tell his story, and propel actual political events….
Given Barack Obama’s remarkable gift in storytelling and the impending second act of the drama of his presidency, we thought it would be enlightening to invite some genuine experts in storytelling to give their thoughts on the narrative President Obama is creating.

George Saunders:

What he’s really doing is saying to the listener, ‘I trust you deeply. I’m going to be as honest as I can, I’m going to tell you the weirdest marginal truths, and because you’re as smart as I am, you’re going to lean forward.’ In fiction that’s an important principle, to assume the best of your reader, don’t puppeteer, don’t condescend.

Ayana Mathis:

It is this question of creating a narrative of yourself… and it is a combination of public perception and his own perception of himself.

Victor Lavalle:

People who are drawn to fiction are asking the writer, “Do a good enough job to help me become invested in someone else for a time, so I can see our common humanity, our common pain, our common everything, and maybe come out of here with the sense that I’m not the only one feeling this loneliness, this sadness…” that’s part of the pact of writing fiction vs nonfiction.

Chris reads a quote from the January 2010 Junot Diaz TNY essay, which may have inspired this whole angle; even Flannery Connor gets a quick mention as an aside.

Then there’s the usual closer of the show, “Now We Know,” a report of something each guest has learned this week. Mathis talks about her discovery of the use of a blossoming pear tree in two disparate works, Saunders comments on the value of humor thanks to some galley proofs he read, Lavalle bemoans the poor quality of bootleg DVDs, and Chabon worries about this giant thing scientists just discovered floating around out there in the universe, a cluster of quasars so huge it can’t possibly exist. It was the most fun Now We Know segment in a long time. That’s what happens when you talk to writers.

Two public displays of affection for books and writers: What a great start to the weekend.

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Junot Diaz: “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” from The New Yorker, 7/23/12

New Yorker art by Jeffrey Decoster

New Yorker art by Jeffrey Decoster

Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually she’s your fiancée, but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.) … She’ll stick around for a few months because you been together a long, long time. Because you’ve gone through so much together — her father’s death, your tenure madness, her bar exam (passed on the third attempt). And because love, real love, is not so easily shed.

Yes, it’s the third Diaz story TNY has published since April. Yes, it’s the same character, Yunior. Yes, it’s the same style. Yes, it’s second person (which is fine with me, but I know a lot of people have a problem with it).

And yet, while I went into it with the reluctance of another dental cleaning, by the end of the story I was moved.

It’s the tale of a man slowly coming to terms with himself, with his own behavior, and the consequences he and others have suffered as a result of it. He’s helped along the way by seeing how similar behavior on the part of his best bud Elvis affects others. Funny how that works; it’s always so easy to see failures in others, while our own remain mysteriously obscure to us.

It’s structured by years. Year 0 is the breakup with his fiancée, who remains unnamed, and proceeds in similarly-titled chapters until Year 5 when… the story gets written. Yes, another one like that. Maybe this is the Year of the Feedback Loop. I’m not saying it doesn’t work. I’m just saying I’m seeing it all over the place now. Was it there before, and I wasn’t paying attention?

I like the chapter titles, which give it a scientific cast, like an anthropologist tracing the development of civilization from Year 0. Or maybe Ground Zero. The chapters also provide a structure I appreciated, since it’s a cycle of Yunior falling apart, professionally, personally, physically, and pulling it together. It starts to feel very “I’ve been here before”. The chapters assured me that yes, I had, because he had been here before. I have to admit, I was getting a little peeved.

Year 4 includes a trip to the Dominican Republic with buddy Elvis, to visit the secret, second family, son and baby mama, Elvis has stashed there in the squalor of the Nadalands. That appears to be an invented term, but you get the idea, it’s a mud flat “falling off the rim of civilization.” Elvis has plans to move them out. He picks Elvis up for the drive to the airport:

He has three suitcases of swag for the boy, including his first glove, his first ball, his first Bosox jersey. About eighty kilos of clothes and shit for the baby mama. Hid them all in your apartment, too. You are at his house when he bids his wife and mother-in-law and daughter goodbye. His daughter doesn’t seem to understand what’s happening, but when the door shuts she lets out a wail that coils about you like a constantine wire. Elvis stays cool as fuck. This used to be me, you’re thinking.

To me, it felt like this is where the story starts, but actually it’s almost over. Without the previous material, nothing here would have much meaning, so I can understand the importance of developing enough of a rapport with the adult Yunior (I never read the original collection introducing us to him as an adolescent) and how he’s mishandling his life. Over the past five years, the tables have turned a little: he’s the one who’s been crapped on. One girlfriend wouldn’t sleep with him; or more accurately, she’d chastely sleep over on Sunday night, bringing her own pillow. It says something about Yunior that she could get away with that. She walks out when he complains.

Another, a law student, breaks up with him for another guy, then comes back and tells him she’s pregnant with his child, only to recant in the delivery room under the stresses of labor: “I don’t want him in here. He’s not the father.”

In Year 5, he gets a photo and an invitation to her wedding to the other guy. Elvis rips it up. “You manage to save a tiny piece of the photo. It’s of her hand.” This, too, says something about Yunior. Unfortunately, these things were easy to miss on first read, with the parade of depressions and recoveries and girlfriends coming and going.

Yet through the whole story, in every year, the fiancée is present. In his TNY interview, he says it’s about a central absence, like most of his stories; but to me, the fiancée is there all along. It’s a very powerful element, how she sticks with this guy who doesn’t seem to care about much.

I was very lucky to enjoy a brief visit from my former Zoetrope friend Melissa (she’s still a friend, we just aren’t very active on Zoetrope Virtual Studios – hi, Melissa) over the weekend, and when the conversation inevitably turned to what we’d been reading, she told me of her experience with Diaz’s Oscar Wu novel: that for all the misogyny and misbehavior, there’s a tenderness to his work. I agree. Yunior cheated on his fiancée with fifty women over the course of their six-year relationship (hence the six-year span of the story; it’s a mirror image, the relationship after she leaves). He’s a dog. But then there’s that photo of her hand… Change is always possible.

Finally, when you feel like you can do so without exploding into burning atoms, you open a folder that you’ve kept hidden under your bed. The Doomsday Book. Copies of all the e-mails and photos from the cheating days, the ones the ex found and compiled and mailed to you a month after she ended it. Dear Yunior, for your next book. Probably the last time she wrote your name.
You read the whole thing cover to cover (yes, she put covers on it). You are surprised at what a fucking chickenshit coward you are. It kills you to admit it, but it’s true. You are astounded by the depths of your mendacity. When you finish the book a second time, you say the truth: You did the right thing, negra. You did the right thing.

Elvis looks at the book. “You really should write the cheater’s guide to love.” Yunior hasn’t written anything in the six years since the breakup.

The ending is predictable, sentimental, and perfect.

It takes a while… And then, one June night, you scribble the ex’s name and: The half-life of love is forever.
You bust out a couple more things. Then you put hour head down.
The next day, you look at the new pages. For once, you don’t want to burn them or give up writing forever.
It’s a start, you say to the room.
That’s about it. In the months that follow, you bend to the work, because it feels like hope, like grace – and because you know in your lying cheater’s heart that sometimes a start is all we ever get.

Junot Diaz: “Monstro” from The New Yorker, June 4/11, 2012

Photograph by Sebastiao Salgado

Photograph by Sebastiao Salgado

These days everybody wants to know what you were doing when the world came to an end. Fools make up all sorts of vainglorious self-serving plep – but me, I tell the truth.
I was chasing a girl.

Isn’t everyone.

We know from the opening that the story is told from the vantage point of the future, after the world has come to an end. So we assume it’s going to be about the end of the world. In a short story, it would be, but this is the beginning of a novel-in-progress, so it’s about the lead-up to the end of the world. I won’t go into my spiel again about how pissed-off I get about this; you know the drill. But it’s a pretty good half-story.

The voice is what sold me. And I’ll admit, it’s also what made it a challenge. I’ve got enough vague familiarity with Spanish to pick my way through the occasional phrase in an English story, but here we have not only Spanish but Dominican/Spanish slang (jeva, janguiar, lemba, coro), some South Asian currency indicators (lakh, crore), future words (glypt, the Whorl) and maybe, I don’t know, current English slang (plep?), and being pretty dense about all of them, I had a hard time telling what was a neologism (“glypt” seems to be similar to email, and the Whorl might be the future Internet) and what I could look up. But most of it’s pretty intuitive. To be sure, it created a world. And an interesting one at that

The narrator, unnamed, is a nineteen-year-old student at Brown who goes with his sick mom to stay with family in the Dominican Republic for the summer: “Say what you want, but her family on the Island was still more reliable for heavy shit, like, say, dying, than family in the North.” He doesn’t hang around much, though. He feels weird around his sick mom, because, as he explains, he’s nineteen and nineteen is all about being shallow. And it’s not like he could help, since Aunt Livia is doing the heavy lifting:

Maybe I’m just saying this to cover my failings as a son.
Maybe I’m saying this because of what happened.
Maybe.

Ok, call me a sucker for style, but I like that. I especially like that the narrator epitomizes the family in the North that isn’t any good at taking care of the dying, unlike Livia, the DR family. Mom knew what she was talking about.

He gets in touch with Alex, a guy he knows from college. They aren’t really friends, seeing as Alex is rich, but they’re both arts types (Alex is into photography while he gets his business degree, and the narrator wants to be a writer) which, in this future capitalism-obsessed world, is a weird thing. It’s actually pretty weird right now, if you keep listening to talk of college in terms of earning potential. But I guess it gets worse. Oh, goody.

As it happens, the end of the world has been going on in Haiti for a while by the time they get there, in the form of a fungal disease. The means of transmission is unknown. The symptoms become more and more bizarre as the disease evolves: people start growing together, and they howl in unison a few times a day. But it’s only poor Haitians, and they’re being quarantined, so who cares. Remind you of anything?

The story alternates between tracing the progress of the disease – it becomes a character itself – and progress of the narrator, who is pursuing Mysty, one of Alex’s friends, to no avail. Alex is an interesting character, full of contradictions. He works hard, studying philosophy at Brown and business at MIT, he’s proud of being Dominican, and yet:

For all his pluses Alex could also be extra dickish. Always had to be the center of attention. I couldn’t say anything slightly smart without him wanting to argue with me…. Treated Dominican workers in restaurants and clubs and bars like they were lower than shit. Never left any kind of tip. You have to yell at these people or they’ll just walk all over you was his whole thing.

And yet he wants to be “either the Dominican Sebastião Salgado or the Dominican João Silva.” An interesting mix, yet not unheard of, for an activist committed to social justice to be unconcerned about those who are right next door. Of course, he could just be in it for the thrill, and the fame, rather than the activism:

He was also the one who wanted to go to Haiti, to take pictures of all the infected people. Mysty was, like, You can go catch a plague all by your fool self, but he waved her off and recited his motto (which was also on his cards): To represent, to surprise, to cause, to provoke.
To die, she added.
He shrugged, smiled his hundred-crore smile. A photographer has to be willing to risk it all. A photograph can change todo.

Me, I didn’t want to change nada; I didn’t want to be famous. I just wanted to write one book that was worth a damn and I would have happily called it a day.
Mi hermano, that’s pathetic to an extreme, Alex said. You have to dream a lot bigger than that.

The end of the story is a helluva teaser. In an effort to contain the thusfar-uncontainable disease, the quarantine center is bombed (a doctor, who will no doubt feature prominently in the novel, covers one eye to watch, and burn out the retina of the one that saw Them), and all hell breaks loose when the disease fights back with “an electromagnetic pulse that deaded all electronics within a six-hundred-square–mile radius.” And the trio head for Haiti, to see what’s really going on. The end.

Half a story. Damn.

Diaz’s interview is very much worth reading for insight into his process:

A couple years ago I got to thinking that our world has so many blind spots, so many places and people it intentionally doesn’t want to see—if some menace began to coalesce in these spaces, our own unseeing would, in fact, blind us to the danger…. As for the infection, once I knew what it wanted and what it would do and how it would defend itself, I found myself reaching for the paper, when I started writing for real.

I tend to get impatient with post-apocalyptic novels, because while the setup is often unique and interesting, at some point it’s an army of good guys, an army of bad guys, and some wise old man talking about values. It seems the wise old man in this case might be a 16-year-old girl named Isis, but I’m still reluctant.

From my usual tour around the Internet, I see a lot of TNY fiction bloggers who are tired of Diaz’s voice, his interspersing Dominican slang and now adding in future tech. Maybe it’s good, then, that I haven’t read much of him, because for me that’s what created this world and drew me in as much as it did. And it’s far more of a science fiction story than the other two stories I’ve read in this “Science Fiction” issue. Of course, I’d have liked it much better if it had been a full story. But, for a half-story, it isn’t half-bad.

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]