Junot Diaz: Drown

unnamedThere’s a note before the contents page of Drown, after the dedication, which is a quote from Gustavo Perez Firmat (http://bit.ly/1bQyrQD). It reads:

“The fact that I/am writing to you/in English/already falsifies what I/wanted to tell you./My subject:/how to explain to you that I/don’t belong to English/though I belong nowhere else”.

These short few lines tell us a great deal about Diaz as a writer – his relationship to his art; the squirming discomfort, the weight of responsibility placed on the shoulders of someone speaking for an underrepresented and marginalised group. Belonging, invisibility and searching for identity in a culture that does not acknowledge his presence are big themes here, as they are in The Brief Wondrous Life…

Drown is a collection of interwoven short stories rather than a novel – and I didn’t enjoy it nearly as heartily as …Oscar Wao. Perhaps it was the fragments – it’s hard to get to know characters when they are diced up into small chunks like this. But it’s not that – Diaz manages to create full and lively characterisations in short glimpses of people’s lives. No, I think it has more to do with the unrelenting undertow of grimness. It’s a deeply sad collection of stories, full of abandoned wives and families, deceived partners, lonely, tormented, brutal adolescents, grotesquely deformed vagrants, old men working themselves to the bone, being cheated by the world. And the list goes on.

There’s never absolute despair though – there are glimmers of hope for everyone, even the man who had his face eaten off by a pig and spends his days running from kids chasing him with stones. But does that ray of hope just prolong the suffering? The ray of hope that convinces the substance-abusing boyfriend that his junkie lover can change, that things will be different this time and they’ll both get clean… it’s hard to read. It’s difficult to confront this world hardened in the kiln of poverty and marginalisation – petty cruelty and a recklessness that comes with having nothing to lose become hard-wired. Softened only by human kindness and love – both which are fickle, flawed and fleeting, full also of pain.

So, Drown. Yes, a kind of drowning – a slow fatal submersion in a potentially life-sustaining but ultimately indifferent and therefore hostile world. Beautifully written, compelling and brilliant, but I’m glad it wasn’t longer.

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