Brutal and wondrous
Junot Díaz is one sly dude. He makes you laugh so hard you don’t notice how serious he is. Motherfucking serious. “Over-the-top Jesucristo” serious. He wants to tell you about the history of the Dominican Republic. About being a poor immigrant of color in New Jersey. About the “super-duper clusterfuck” bred by racism and sexism. About men who cheat on, beat, and rape women (Dios mío). About boys abandoned by their fathers, families devastated by cancer, lovers wrecked by infidelity and insecurity. About surviving depression (how to “exorcise the shit”). About geeking out on Star Wars, Marvel Comics, LOTR, and The Matrix. About giving in to your “inextinguishable longing for elsewheres.” And about those moments of painful silence and lonely tenderness in the life of every sucio, puta, or pendejo.
Who knew Elizabeth Gilbert would be the perfect complement to Señor Díaz? After all, wasn’t it the same inextinguishable longing that drove Liz elsewhere—to Italy, India, and Indonesia—in Eat, Pray, Love? She’s all earnest and New Agey in EPL and so Oprah-meets-Darwin in The Signature of All Things, you might forget how funny and tough-minded she is. With authority and humility, she writes about science, religion, marriage, masturbation (oh yeah, sistah, see Signature), lobster fishing, and The Last American Man. Before EPL, she was a journalist writing often about men and for men. So don’t be so snarky around her. She can whack you with empirical evidence from nineteenth-century botany (and prove that the “natural world was a place of punishing brutality”) before you can even say chick lit.
“What can you do? Life smacks everybody around,” says a character in the final story in Díaz’s first book, Drown. In other words, or in Díaz’s world, we’re all pissed off and fucked up. Which is the same thing that Anne Tyler, a writer with a totally different style and sensibility, would say: “We’re all scarred.” And no one can blame you if none of that gives you comfort. But look closer and you’ll find more that Junot Díaz and Elizabeth Gilbert share. Both The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and The Signature of All Things center on protagonists who revel in their geekiness. Oscar de León is into sci-fi and comic-book “nerdery”; Alma Whittaker loves botany. Both are described as ugly: Oscar, fat and pimply; Alma, middle-aged and homely. Both learn that the search for love often requires the struggle for existence in a world that keeps crushing even their most stubborn hopes. As Gilbert says about lobster fishing, “it is a mean business.”
Two of the most moving short stories in Drown concern a boy named Ysrael who has to wear a mask because “when he was a baby a pig had eaten his face off.” He is No Face, the town’s masked monster. The other boys taunt and assault him, and the promise of surgery can’t stop his nightmares. Still, he’s not swallowed by self-pity or hate. He survives his days, learning English, doing pull-ups, reading comic books, and running fast, “never slipping or stumbling.” He’s like moss, that botanical anomaly that Alma studies. Moss is “not big or beautiful or showy.”
Mosses were typically defined by what they lacked, not by what they were, and, indeed, they lacked much. Mosses bore no fruit. Mosses had no roots. Mosses could grow no more than a few inches tall, for they contained no internal cellular skeleton with which to support themselves. [ … ] In every way mosses could seem plain, dull, modest, even primitive. The simplest weed sprouting from the humblest city sidewalk appeared infinitely more sophisticated by comparison. But here is what Alma came to learn: Moss is inconceivably strong.
Moss “grows where nothing else can grow.” Moss persists. Moss endures. And so can you. Because you have to. Gilbert is saying: Like it or not, life can be brutal and ugly. And Díaz won’t let you forget that. In Chapter 3 of his novel, for example, there’s that scene in the sugarcane fields where a woman is savaged under a “ferocious moonlight.” It’s the kind of horror that haunts you for years. But Díaz, like Gilbert, isn’t letting you go without any consolation. Read any of their books and you’ll find it. It’s there like moss thriving in the least expected places. And it’s there in the final line of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: “The beauty! The beauty!”