Review of “Drown”

I honestly struggle with how to start talking about Drown by Junot Diaz. To be quite blunt, writing this three months after reading it I had to review the notes on the inside of my book to remember much about it and I think that this reflects poorly on the book itself. The struggles of the characters are all relatable to some extent: how to deal with poverty; how to deal with social ostracism; how the young yearn for the ability to be who they want and the old wish they were young so they can remake themselves; how to deal with unrequited love; how to deal with non-traditional parenting dynamics; how to succeed or fail as an immigrant and how both tracks can be painful; how to, well, you get the picture.

Outside of that, though, there wasn’t much that really stuck with me in the manner that, say, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned did from the collection of short stories of the same name by Wells Tower did. Or that even Diaz’s other works did. Or that a number of other novellas have. I realize while writing this that it might be a matter of a certain prejudice that I have against short stories, but even then I don’t think that my preference for longer works de facto invalidates my disconnection. This is not to say that I didn’t like it – the stories have their moment. Just that, I guess, they never get to a point at which I find myself enamored with them.

The characters suffer or take pride in their roles, but generally express little agency other than a few primal urges that, even then, they seem to realize as banal. I recognize that this is an effect that Diaz is seeking in his work, an existential ambivalence if you will, but it makes the characters seem like poseurs. “Precisely!” Diaz might respond and I would counter with, Well then so what? Thinking specifically of Edward Limonov’s Memoirs of A Russian Punk, I would say that these similar themes could be interrogated, but in a more constructivist manner. I realize this is again my own aesthetic judgement – but it is nevertheless one I stand by.

There are a number of other things that I found myself dissatisfied with. For one: a not so subtle sexism. To me this was evident in what I would call Diaz’s generally singular portrayal of all men as machistas. I fully recognize that this – that is the categorization of women as sexual objects to be conquered, traditional caretakers of the family that can weather all sorts of infidelities and foul treatment to keep the family unit together or the mothers that protect their sons – is a realistic depiction of Dominican culture, neigh many cultures in general. However the only moment that I read which was in any ways empowering for a woman was in the last ten lines of the short story Boyfriend the girl, Loretta, who is shown to be used by a number of men cuts her hair short and takes pride in “looking fierce.”

Lest I be misconstrued as someone that needs some sort of overarching feminist message in their books to feel myself connected to it I have to point out that I am a huge fan of Henry Miller, who often, I believe, gets derided as a misogynist when I think it’s more proper to call him a libertine imbued with a generalized sexual vitalism. I’ve heard similar charges against Milan Kundera, who I also enjoy and find such categorizations as unfitting. But maybe this is perhaps because they do something more profound with similar characterizations that Diaz just doesn’t.

That said, there are a number of really good lines in the short stories that have just a huge amount of emotional impact within them. Like in Aurora: “I go back to sleep and when I wake up in the morning I’m laying in the tub and I’ve got blood on my chin and I can’t remember how in the world that happened. This is no good, I tell myself. I go into the sala, wanting her to be there but she’s gone again and I puch myself in the nose just to clear my head.” Or in Boyfriend: “ She let him fuck her every time, maybe hoping that it would make him stay but you know, once somebody gets a little escapt velocity going, ain’t no play in the world that will keep them from leaving.” Or in Fiesta, 1980: “Papi was old-fashioned; he expected your undivided attention when you were getting your ass whupped. You couldn’t look him in the eye either – that wasn’t allowed.” Compared to those in Diaz’s other works, however, I found their frequency lacking and the use of Spanglish more much more spurious.

I’ll likely pick this book up again at some point in time to give it a try, but on the whole I was unimpressed.