Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Junot Díaz’s “Monstro” was originally published in the June 4 & 11, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
Here’s my experience with “Monstro”: (1) feeling that it was the same-old-same-old Díaz, (2) building excitement at an interesting take on the end of the world, and (3) ultimate disappointment as the pieces failed to develop (let alone come together) in any meaningful way. Let’s take that one at a time.
One of my problems with Díaz is the sameness of his voice. I find it a grating voice to begin with, but there’s not denying Díaz knows how to use this completely informal voice to make a narrative move forward quickly, leaving subjects out of sentences, mixing Spanish slang, the narrator successfully deflecting any responsibility for the ugly things he says about women and Haitians. I can handle when an author explores similar territory many times over, but I generally fail to get nuanced changes with Díaz. This story deals with the end of the world, but if you know Díaz, the anticipation of the end of the world is not new; it’s just that here it becomes fact. Here’s how “Monstro” opens; if it weren’t for the strange disease, it would be much like most other Díaz stories:
At first, Negroes thought it funny. A disease that could make a Haitian blacker? It was the joke of the year. Everybody in our sector accusing everybody else of having it. You couldn’t display a blemish or catch some sun on the street without the jokes starting. Someone would point to a spot on your arm and say, Diablo, haitiano, que te pasó?
Our narrator (who is unnamed, and I don’t believe it is Yunior this time), is nineteen at the time of the end of the world. It begins it Haiti when people started becoming infected with the Darkness. Here’s where I started enjoying the story more. In establishing the Darkness and the exponential horror, Díaz seems to be setting up for some fascinating ideas. The infected start acting collectively. First comes the Silence, when nothing you did could get them to talk. Then the Chorus, when at different times of the day all of the infected, even those in comas, would bellow out something terrifying. Then the absolute need to group together:
Doctors began reporting a curious change in the behavior of the infected patients: they wanted to be together, in close proximity, all the time. [. . . .] Once viktims got it in their heads to go, no dissuading them. Left family, friends, children behind. Walked out on wedding days, on swell business. Once they were in the zone, nothing could get them to leave.
Since there are already quarantine zones, that’s where the infected go. They will not leave once there. Perhaps I just like Tarkovsky too much, but this sounded like the beginning of something really interesting. And what was the narrator doing while all of this was going on? Chasing a girl. Back to familiar Díaz territory, and just when things were getting interesting to me. We take a relatively long detour from the developing apocalypse and focus on the narrator and his college friend Alex. They’re both young (the narrator is nineteen), and have returned — bad timing — to the Dominican Republic from Brown University to do what young men free from worry do. One of Alex’s friends is the beautiful Mysty, and that’s who our narrator falls for. After several pages, we get back to the doom. There’s a climax, meant to further develop the story, and then we end fairly suddenly.
You see, this is another excerpt. It may not even be that, as Díaz has said he hasn’t written the rest of the book and isn’t even sure he’s going to, though the image that inspired the story in the first place has yet to occur. There must have been truckloads of genuine short, science fiction stories that would chase down interesting ideas; instead, The New Yorker opted to publish a sketch with two story lines that fail to develop individually or merge together from an author they published just one month prior.