I’ve loved Junot Diaz since a friend recommended This is How You Lose Her a few years ago. Given how much I enjoyed the book, with its multiple narrators and distinct voices, I was long overdue to read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I finally read and finished it last month. The differences in the novels are obvious, as are the similarities. If we were to compare one to the other, the things I love in Lose Her (interconnected short story structure, each section told from various distinct points of view) are the same things I didn’t love in Oscar Wao. Whereas Lose Her‘s stories all derived from a central theme but were not necessarily meant to be connected in the sense of one overarching narrative plot, Oscar Wao‘s weight comes from side tangents on the lives and history of every character in the book. (Side note, I don’t love Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex for similar reasons, though I’d say Diaz pulls this off better than Eugenides.)
But this isn’t a post about Diaz’s choice in story structure and my personal tastes. This is about Diaz’s narrative voice, the one thing tying both Lose Her and Oscar Wao together. I’m talking about Yunior.
Yunior appears a few times during Lose Her, most predominantly as a young boy whose brother passes from cancer, and again as an adult whose tragedies and triumphs are told through the second person toward the end of the book. I had heard that this character appears in Wao prior to reading the book, and, generally wary of recurring characters, I was hesitant about this, knowing how I enjoyed Yunior so much in Lose Her. And knowing that I’d already lived his life with him, had already understood his relationships and family and personal identity. As I learned from reading Oscar Wao, I wasn’t wrong for being wary.
Yunior appears in Oscar Wao as a character voice, and doesn’t become a full-fledged character that we can grab ahold of until at least a third of the way into the book. It took me a while to even know that the voice Diaz was using (a familiar voice if you’ve read any of his other work, surely) was Yunior. The problem is, while there is a clear space for Yunior’s character in Lose Her, with all other characters stemming outward from his family and relationships, there seems little place for him in Oscar Wao. In fact, even by the end of the novel I was left wondering why Yunior was the one to tell me the entire story, and how on earth he would have been the one to be privileged to such intimate details and backstory of the central characters’ histories when he himself was so very far removed from even the two characters with whom he did had relationships (Oscar and his older sister Lola, who he dates on and off in a fraught relationship that goes nowhere). Then I realized: Yunior isn’t a character. Yunior is Diaz’s narrative voice.
The realization wasn’t much of a realization when you read any of Diaz’s other works (it becomes pretty apparent that he’s most comfortable in Yunior’s voice), but as a writer, I question this tactic. For one, Diaz quickly becomes typecast using Yunior’s voice. As a reader, I know exactly what Yunior’s voice sounds like, I understand the rhythm of his cadence, I know there will be a lot of Spanish and a lot of cursing punctuating his sentences, which creates a type of predictability about the work; two, as a reader who’s read more than one of his books, I try to connect the stories told to complete my understanding of Yunior’s fictional life (a slippery slope for both reader and writer because timelines and character plots never add up); and finally, perhaps most importantly, there seems no need for it. Diaz does a brilliant job writing as a Dominican woman in love with a married man, for example, in Lose Her. I haven’t yet read Drown, and it’s true Yunior is a central character here as well, but with ten stories told in the collection, one imagines there are plenty other voices that Diaz pulls off with ease. He could have easily (and perhaps more enjoyably) written from the POV of each of the characters, instead of forcing us to accept the implausibility of Yunior’s knowledge from his limited connections to the family.
So what is the draw? Perhaps it’s that writing in that space where we as writers feel most comfortable help us to write. I know I feel this way as well. It’s much easier for me to embody a girl who isn’t exactly me, but a type of me that I can easily recognize and write from. It’s a voice I lean towards in much of my fiction because it feels most comfortable. But when I move into the heads of other characters (for example, in a recent short story I wrote in the voice of a young, gay man) it is exciting, new, but challenging. As it should be. Not to say Diaz is lazy (I think he’s brilliant) but he’s obviously comfortable with the voice he’s chosen. Whether or not this is a good thing is perhaps up to the reader to decide. Diaz is clearly comfortable enough as a writer to get away with it. But, I for one look forward to more diverse character voices from Diaz, because we all know he can do it.
Notable lines (from This is How You Lose Her, in the voice of a woman in the section Otravida, Otravez):
Here there are calamities without end — but sometimes I can clearly see us in the future, and it is good. We will live in his house and I will cook for him and when he leaves food out on the counter I will call him a zangano. I can see myself watching him shave every morning. And at other times I see us in that house and see how one bright day (or a day like this, so cold your mind shifts every time the wind does) he will wake up and decide it’s all wrong. He will wash his face and then turn to me. I’m sorry, he’ll say. I have to leave now.