I like that he answered my compliment about avoiding the pigeonhole of easy ethnic identity lit by going deeper, longer, and talking sincerely about the responsibility of Literature to be big, more, everything. I like it when the author takes his/her work so seriously, not to mention his mission. Another smart thing he said had to do with the use of blank space, which is to say that unwritten narrative in between short stories. Here is a fiction writer with lots to say, and who knows when to say it and when not to say it. So, yes, short stories instead of another novel – like his brilliant and totally complete The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – where what's “missing” is what is entirely there.
Be honest. Diaz's remarkable, resonant, economically written and yet also dialog-driven narratives are able to assume two difficult worldviews simultaneously, so that all nine stories make up a much longer and bigger book. They tell the stories of characters halved, split, lost yet so conscious–especially the Narrator, or his alter ego Yunior–of what is missing that we are, ironically, assured at all the loss. A childhood stolen by the dictator Trujillo, by a brutally strict and sad striver of a brutal father, by brothers and uncles who steal from mothers and lovers, emotionally and from their purses, too. Diaz is unshy about sewing his heart to his sleeve, and then rolling it up and getting to it. The politics, arguably pro-feminist and clearly anti-colonial, are writ in vulnerability and loss even as they speak in all kinds of language, from slang to the intellectual insights of a professor-type who resembles, yes, the grown-up JD, who teaches today at MIT.
Well, Obama and his crew didn't listen to Diaz or George Lakoff, cognitive linguist and progressive answer to Frank Lutz, the Dr. Evil of GOP pandering. But he, they (we) still won. So? I have been reading a lot of Lakoff lately–listening to his lectures, more honestly – and reconsidering his Big Idea about the political “strict father–nurturing parent” model and the place of metaphor. In terms of art, Diaz seems to have gotten there, too. Or maybe that's what good fiction does all the time, election season or not. (Maybe Obama knows his audience better than we do.) Diaz's own political and emotional character (and the character of his characters) shows through all the winning personae here, so that his presence as creator of what I felt with each story a kind of contest or campaign for fullness and transparency begins with the very first story: “I'm not a bad guy. I know how that sounds–defensive, unscrupulous–but it's true. I'm like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good. Magdalena disagrees though. She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole.”
Of course, he is both, and the consistent and yet tragically imaginative ways this guy and the others (a wounded brother Diaz's most touching exemplar) find to prove it are the excruciatingly painful if funny stories, all varieties of, yes, love story. Immigrants, parents, girlfriends get hurt. The sadistic history of the island shows up, the neighborhood and the unwelcoming new country. Big conclusion? In the final, longish story, “The Cheater's Guide to Love,” our Narrator (or all of them) seem to have learned, if perhaps learned mostly that loss is sometimes more alive and urgent than the moment of having. “The half-life of love is forever.” This is a sad, beautiful collection where, yes, what is left unsaid is as loud and clear and elegant as what is said. And that's just the white space, blank pages. How better than to tell of loss? Listen to it as you read the actual words, which are pretty darn amazing, too.