Junot Díaz: “Monstro”

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.

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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.

19 thoughts on “Junot Díaz: “Monstro””

  1. Isabel says:

    I heard him speak down in New Orleans a few years ago.

    I have a feeling he is ambivalent about being Hispanic.

    Maybe if he lived down here, it wouldn’t be so bad.

  2. Sophie says:

    Díaz’s voice is original. No one can deny him this. But it is now tiresomely predictable, as you point out. I wonder if he could write a story where trying to get a piece of ass wasn’t central to the narrative, and where race and culture are explored with more nuance.

  3. jerry says:

    Unlike you I really like his voice but like you i am very disappointed at the way the story just peters out. It should have been longer and the first two thirds are very good.

    I like Diaz but this was frustrating.

  4. Dan says:

    Once I got through half of Oscar Wao and got sick of the schtick, all that was left was the pretty boring story and two-dimensional characters. I felt that way after the first sentence of Monstro.

    I feel like you could come up with Junot Diaz mad-libs. “Girl was gorgeous, had a [Dominican slang for female body part] that could make men go [more Dominican slang]. And even more, she knew how to use it, like [insert sci-fi/comic simile here].”

  5. iditis says:

    Diaz’s story, though enchanting, has him treading haloed grounds with a futuristic setting where the world is on the “cusp of a catastrophic ecological collapse”, which immediately has the reader thinking of similar settings created by H. G. Wells, Arthur Clark, and Asimov. http://iditis.blogspot.com/2012/06/junot-diazs-monstro-compelling-short.html

  6. Lee Monks says:

    Fascinating. Trevor, I totally understand your ire at their publishing this, as you say, right on the back of another Diaz piece. But I love Diaz’s voice: I really think he is, and apologies for the shorthand comparison, a contemporary Salinger. I’m happy to hear certain writers in embryonic form; and yet I’m sure that the New Yorker remit probably doesn’t mesh with what this piece is.

    Sophie, Dan: your comments made me laugh, so thanks.

  7. Trevor says:

    Dan, you made me laugh as well! The more of his work I read, the more I feel the same way.

    Lee, a contemporary Salinger? I’m intrigued, if you’d care to elaborate a bit.

  8. mehbe says:

    A tedious waste of time, I thought. I did find the sentence “Now it gets sketchy as hell” quite funny, in a couple of probably unintended ways. And then there was “a six-hundred-square-mile radius”, which made me realize that trying to proof-read this sort of writing must be a nightmare – yes, New Yorker, you are forgiven for letting that slip through, but not for publishing the thing in the first place.

  9. Trevor says:

    I tweeted about the “six-hundred-square-foot radius,” just to see if I was being dense, and we were in agreement. And The New Yorker once axed a line of Updike’s poetry about hexagonal shapes on turtle shells (“hexagons healed”) because apparently they’re pentagons (this anecdote from Liesl Schillinger, who was copy editing at the time). Not that I begrudge the slip, but perhaps it does show a lack of attention when it comes to Diaz.

  10. Lee Monks says:

    Well, it was a doubtless hyperbolic comment, but I stand by it. Just the brilliant use of comic demotic in the main. When I read Drown years ago I was really surprised; the dialogue knocked me over. Just highly vivid exchanges, verisimilitude and effortless comedy. Oscar Wao more than confirmed all that for me: very few writers can do that so effectively and engagingly. Characters that may be hiply flippant but you want to spend time with them: hard to pull off. I can’t think of another contemporary writer with a Holden Caulfield in them…except maybe Sam Lipsyte………maybe Jennifer Egan…

  11. Trevor says:

    It’s been a while since I read Sallinger, and I’ve always defended him. I wonder if I’m becoming one of those who couldn’t take him anymore, because I see what you mean. In Sallinger, I am even willing to let the relentless pounding of certain themes go, but I’m unwilling to give Diaz the same pass (I haven’t found as much to like in Diaz ever, though, so maybe not).

  12. Gina says:

    A total incoherent mess. Though I read it thru, I was exasperated like a hijo de la puta all the way. Worst, you sense the desperation to make it cohere, or pick up purpose or meaning, or authentic shock, or something. What I did get, loud and clear, was: “I’m lost, I’m lost…”

    I wonder about The New Yorker’s justification for printing this?

  13. Aaron says:

    Trevor, just the other day you were saying that we never agreed on anything, and yet here we are, with pretty much the same three complaints: as he steps into new terrain, he falls back on his reliable habits (convinced, perhaps that these are what make him good, even as they ironically drown out what he has to say); his premise is interesting and well-drawn out; but the entire thing is disappointing in that it ends before it really begins. (This is especially troubling given that we already know he makes it back from his ill-advised trip; he’s foreshadowed something that hasn’t happened, and while that’s perhaps understandable for an actual excerpt, Diaz hasn’t actually even WRITTEN the story, which makes this the laziest sort of placeholder/sketch.)

    More thoughts, as usual, here (http://bit.ly/M9iYvv); as to the question about how this got published, I really couldn’t say. I haven’t read the other stories in this issue yet, but T. C. Boyle’s “Los Gigantes” from February would’ve fit right in here, to say nothing of something from George Saunders, tired as I may be of his near-future American satire.

  14. Gina says:

    Not to harbor on Junot Diaz whose stories whenever I came upon them gave me great pleasure, but just prior to Monstro I read Jennifer Egan’s Black Box, and Oh My Goodness, please let there be more. I’m left hanging on a cliff. I want more and more about every single one of those vicious evils and those good beauties. How do they do it? Most of all, how can I draft myself into the army of our new heroism and become a soldier in the service that fights self-involvement and narcissism? Jennifer makes it sound like the training is very, very hard but doesn’t give a clue.

  15. Ken says:

    Diaz’s story was entertaining enough but fails as literature (see above comments) and as genre fiction it’s hackneyed and retreading many other pieces of dystopiana.

  16. Sol Muser says:

    Not a fan of Diaz, and the New Yorker has published too much of him in too short a period of time. Hate his voice, hate his style, hate his fiction. And dear Lord, there is another Diaz story this week? Ow, my head.

  17. Matthew says:

    LOOK at the cover of the issue in which the Diaz story appears and you will all see your literary analog joke- selves lampooned. Have fun its sci-fi not you-fi.

  18. Trevor says:

    It seems you understand the cover, Matthew. Why, then, don’t you understand our problems with this story or this “sci-fi” issue?

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