Junot Díaz: “The Pura Principle”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Junot Díaz’s “The Pura Principle” was originally published in the March 22, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

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I still haven’t quite determined whether I liked or didn’t like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  When I saw that Díaz has another story here in The New Yorker, I was both wary and excited.  If I like it, perhaps I’ll remember whether I liked Oscar.  If I don’t like it, well, perhaps that will confirm what I have been suspecting: that I’m just not a fan of Díaz.

I wrote the block quote above before reading “The Pura Principle.”  I can confirm at least one thing: I’m not a fan of Díaz.  What I still cannot confirm: Whether I liked The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  I believe I am a fan of Oscar, but the things I found somewhat annoying there I found super annoying here.  On the one hand, Díaz’s writing is unique.  However, after Oscar it doesn’t feel as fresh.  Here is a typical sample:

Lady still managed to scrounge a couple hours here and there to hang with her new main man, Jehovah.  I had my yerba, she had hers.  She’d never been big on church before, but as soon as we landed on cancer planet she went so over-the-top Jesucristo that I think she would have nailed herself to a cross if she’d had one handy.  That last year she was especially Ave Maria.

As you can see, the language isn’t an impediment in and of itself; it flows nicely.  It’s just that the style can become a bit in your face.  Aware that that is exactly what Díaz is attempting to do, I have to just say I’m not a fan.  But where Oscar was strong — in its unique story where the narration tended to downplay, to great effect, the violence and loneliness throughout — “The Pura Principle” fails.

The story started out well.  I actually thought I was going to like it.  Our narrator Yunior describes the changes that have occurred in their poor urban New Jersey household since they “landed on cancer planet.”  Yunior’s older brother Rafa has leukemia, though he still acts like the cocky inner-city boy that he is.  Their father left to be with another woman.  Their mother loves Rafa deeply — he was a kind of miracle baby, coming after she thought she’d never have children.  When Rafa decides to go get a job at a knitting store, both Yunior and Mama are worried about whether he is too sick — though they also recognize that he has never really worked in his life.

As expected, work at a knitting store doesn’t go well.  Besides becoming disgruntled, after only a few weeks Rafa collapses on the floor.  Comforting him was Pura, an illegal Dominican immigrant.

To me this is where it fell apart.  The story became focused on the relationship between Mama and Pura.  Mama is uncharacteristically mean to the girl.

To me the story fizzled to the point in the end where I didn’t care about what was going on anymore but just got kind of annoyed at the narration tricks.  I didn’t hate the story, but I became uninterested.

15 thoughts on “Junot Díaz: “The Pura Principle””

  1. New story forum is up and ready for your comments.

  2. I will admit that I jumped into the electronic version of this when I saw it was by Diaz. Count me as an Oscar Wao fan of major proportions, so I was eager to get to this.

    The narrator is Yunior, from Wao, and the narrative is similar. A brother is dying and that is the framework of the story. His mother is upset, those around him have a range of different responses.

    Alas, even for this fan of Oscar Wao, the story does not really go anywhere — if anything, it retreats from that book. Raja, the victim, never gets enough attention to become real, even in short story terms. Yunior wanders in his narrative. His mother’s Prayer Circle is perhaps the most interesting part of the story but it too gets short shrift.

    I’m glad to see where Diaz is heading — this story reads very much like it is an excerpt from a longer work and I look forward to that. As a story, it gets maybe 5 out of 10. A nice effort, well-executed, but not much more.

  3. Joe says:

    I guess I was one of the few people who didn’t like “Oscar Wao.” I’d heard good things about it and after it won the Pulitzer I finally got a copy and really expected to enjoy it, but I actually stopped about halfway through, which is unusual for me.

    The same things that bugged me about “Oscar Wao” bugged me about this story. I have to say that I find the narrator insufferable. On the one hand, here’s a guy who says, “Dude was figuando hard. Had always been a papi chulo…” But then a couple of pages later, the author shows his hand with “solicitous,” “pulchritude,” “demotic,” and “presentiment.” So who’s doing the talking here? To me, the whole thing feels fake and smart-alecky.

    I agree with KfC, the prayer circle was the most interesting element of the story (and it made for some funny lines). I wish there were more of that and less of Junot Diaz.

  4. My disappointment is posted above.

  5. I think my final thoughts echo Kevin’s and Joe’s. I like how you put it, Kevin, when you say this retreats from Oscar Wao.

  6. Trevor: I have to believe that this is an excerpt from a novel in progress — too many potentially interesting elements are introduced and then ignored, which reads like “novel” to me . And whatever you might think of Diaz (and I can understand why people like Joe did not like Wao), the New Yorker is doing him no favor by printing excerpts (well, maybe putting some food on the table in the short term, I guess). Diaz built Wao like a mud-brick house — awkwardly packed the straw and clay for one brick, then moved on to another and finally got around to stacking them all together. None of the individual bricks were very interesting, but I sure appreciated the resulting house. For those of us who liked the novel, that was part of the charm — you had to keep all the individual bricks in mind before he started stacking them on top of each other. This story/excerpt doesn’t put me off a potential novel — some elements like the Prayer Circle do have promise. And the knitting shop. And I remain intrigued by the notion of exploring the contemporary immigrant class in New Jersey.

    Then again, maybe I’m just making up excuses for an author whose previous novel I very much enjoyed. It wouldn’t be the first time that I did that.

  7. Good point, Kevin. And I agree that printing these works in progress does the author (and we readers) no favors. It makes the magazine look like a step in some marketing program and not the final destination of great fiction.

    I also agree that the interesting elements here are promising. I know several immigrant families here, some legal, many not. There is so much material there for someone with his talent. I didn’t follow the progression of Oscar, so I’m intrigued to see whether this story develops further.

  8. javins says:

    I liked it. The jealousy Mama has toward Pura and the rock-hard stubborness and enormous selfishness of every single character in it were interesting. I thought the narrator’s voice believable; he’s a smart if enormously cynical young man, had been “honors” English as a HS junior so his articulate mix of extensive English vocabulary with barrio Spanish didn’t strike me as affected. I thought the story did a good job of conveying a careless way of life governed by machismo, even in the women. And I have to say, I totally agreed with Mama about Pura. You could tell she was bad news from her first appearence, a cross between a vulture and a leech.

    Not a great story but I thought it showed a lot of promise and was defintely worth the read.

  9. Lauren says:

    Really, it reads just like a story from “Drown”, Diaz’s first collection of stories. That’s why things are brought up and ignored–because it is assumed that the reader has a level of familiarity with Rafa and Yunior from reading “Drown”. I’m not sure this works. If this story was actually part of that collection, it would work brilliantly. But that collection was published 14 years ago, and obviously “Oscar Wao” is so much more fresh in everyone’s minds. People have forgotten that Yunior was first the narrator of short stories, then the narrator of “Oscar Wao”.

  10. Colette Jones says:

    I’ve gotten way behind in these!

    I actually quite liked this story until the end, because it didn’t seem to be an ending at all. If it is an excerpt of a larger work, shouldn’t that be stated?

  11. I can’t recall any case where the New Yorker has published a piece of fiction that turns out to be an excerpt where they have stated that. I suspect that is because the author has submitted it as a stand-alone piece (and often when the longer work is published the excerpt has been changed somewhat). So I suspect it is left to the magazine reader to speculate.

  12. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them note an excerpt as an excerpt either, though in some cases I wish they would. I probably wouldn’t read them. I view them more as promotional material than a serious attempt at short fiction. I certainly have enjoyed several of them, but I usually do not. I’m probably being unfair.

  13. shaker says:

    Pura is a cancer.

  14. I’m not sure what you mean, shaker. Can you ellaborate?

  15. Vincent says:

    I liked Oscar Wao a lot. I generally agree with javins, especially about the narrator’s voice: I also find it believable and engaging. And the characters and their dilemmas and context worked for me. I felt myself get pulled into the story very quickly. But, Diaz seemed to me to have trouble bringing the piece in for a landing: I didn’t feel the emotional ‘punch’ or ‘release’ of any sort of resolution at the end. That makes me suspicious, like others, that this is an excerpt rather than a short story.

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