Books

The Trouble with Superfly Landscapes: On Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her

“The landscapes were superfly—even though there was a drought on and the whole campo, even the houses, was covered in that red dust.”

—Junot Diaz, “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars”

Two-and-a-half years ago I assigned Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to my freshman composition students. About ninety percent of my kids were white, middle- to upper-middle-class, and from Georgia. The idea was to expose them to the kind of story (in this case, a depressed supernerd’s immigrant experience) they might not encounter elsewhere, to transport them to worlds light-years beyond suburban or rural Georgia—the campos of Santo Domingo, the slums of Paterson, New Jersey. It was the same reason I made them read Sherman Alexie, Jamaica Kincaid, Yusef Komunyakaa, and David Sedaris (some students couldn’t wrap their heads around Sedaris’s homosexuality), among others. I figured Diaz’s rampant pop culture references, profanity, sex, and slang would trick the kids into enjoying some real live postmodern literature.

I figured wrong. The sex and F bombs went off with aplomb, but references to Galactus and anime hummed right over most kids’ heads, hardly qualifying as pop. The proliferation of Spanish irritated them (I knew the Spanish might prove trying, but hoped it would be the rewarding kind)—half their parents were probably card-carrying Tea Partiers; this is AMURRIKKKA, and I used to get papers arguing for English as the official language—as did the copious footnotes. (“Do we have to read those?” I heard, again and again. “There’s, like… a lot of them.”) Most disappointing of all, they giggled at the slang (dope, fly, ill, etc.)—it was as much a goofy foreign tongue to them as the Spanish. You didn’t have to be Freddie Jackson sipping a milkshake in a snowstorm to know most of my students didn’t think this was a cool book. Which fucked with my head a little bit: Wait a second, I thought. Is Junot Diaz not cool? Am I not cool?

But! The New Yorker SAID—

I know now that my students’ lack of enthusiasm for Oscar Wao was more reflective of my shortcomings as a teacher than anything else (this was the second class I ever taught), and I no longer care if The New Yorker or a bunch of nineteen-year-olds think Junot Diaz is cool. I’ve read enough of Diaz’s stories and interviews to know that I think he’s cool and brilliant and scary-talented and one of my favorite authors. But because he is one of my favorite authors, I care how Diaz uses his words. I care if his language feels as fresh and electric as it did in Oscar Wao and his first short story collection, Drown. And, having just finished Diaz’s very good new collection, This Is How You Lose Her—which is littered with lines like “The landscapes were superfly”—I’m not sure that it does.

“…trying to defend Boston from uncool is like blocking a bullet with a slice of bread.”

—Junot Diaz, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love”

Unlike too many of my friends, I am not going to pretend I’m from Washington, DC.

I grew up outside of DC, in Alexandria, Virginia, assimilating words like tight, wack, bama, and siced from hip-hop, go-go, and kids at school. I still use these words conversationally—especially wack, and especially with friends from home—but almost never in my prose, because I am a white dude (like, Christina Ricci-white) from the suburbs. Using these words would seem forced and phony, a sad, transparent stab at coolness. Readers would cringe or roll their eyes, and rightfully so. I’m young (twenty-seven) and live in a big, hip, predominantly black city (Atlanta), but I don’t think anyone who knows me would describe me as urban or even cool.

Junot Diaz emigrated to the US from the DR when he was six. He grew up listening to hip-hop in a New Jersey ghetto (Paterson), which is where he picked up a lot of the slang terms and euphemisms he drops into his stories. Diaz was just twenty-seven when Drown came out. He wasn’t yet forty when Oscar Wao was published, transforming his career and life in a way that, when Diaz was tossing dirty toilet paper into a wastebasket as a kid or moving pool tables to pay his way through college at Rutgers, he never thought possible.

Today Diaz is almost forty-four. He lives in Boston (arguably the whitest and least hip of America’s major cities), teaches writing at MIT, and makes frequent appearances in The New Yorker and on NPR. He is still considered by critics to be a fresh, “street” author: according to The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani, Diaz’s voice is “streetwise.” According to O MagazineTIHYLH “Exhibits the potent blend of literary eloquence and street cred that earned him a Pulitzer Prize.” Entertainment Weekly writes that “New Jersey has a new literary bad boy.” Blurb, groan, repeat.

O Magazine imbuing an author with street cred is a little like Pierce Hawthorne dubbing something “streets ahead”—nineteen and twenty-seven-year-olds are not necessarily shaking short story collections at each other, saying, “Y’all peeped this new street shit?!” In other words: At what point does it become forced and phony and cringeworthy for a forty-three-year-old MIT professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author to say dope and fly and ill every other paragraph? At what point do we start rolling our eyes?

“It’s a weird hurt, isn’t it, to watch a dying rapper?”

—Jay Caspian Kang, The Dead Do Not Improve

The language and attitude I’m calling into question is the language and attitude of hip-hop: this is why, for our purposes, it is more appropriate (and, frankly, fun) to compare Diaz to a rapper rather than another author.

Shawn “Jay Z” Carter was born the year before Diaz, in 1967, and was raised just thirty miles away in Brooklyn. Like Diaz, he grew up with a bunch of siblings (three to Diaz’s four) but no father, and like Diaz, he hustled to make a living (a less legal kind of hustle, but the principle is the same) until an instant-classic debut in ’96 (Reasonable Doubt) heralded his arrival as not just a compelling artist, but an important one.

My sophomore year of college (’03), Jay Z feigned going out on top with his phenomenal “retirement” record, The Black Album, forcing me to change my AIM screen name from Kender13 (a Dragonlance reference) to I got 99 problms. Hov, the “Mike Jordan of the mic recording,” warned us on “Encore” that he would “come back like Jordan / wearin’ the 4-5,” and sure enough, in 2006 he unretired to release Kingdom Come, one of his worst records ever, if not the worst. (Shades of Jordan’s ’94-’95 season.) On “30 Something,” the almost-thirty-seven-year-old Hov claimed, in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary, “Thirty’s the new twenty, nigga / I’m so hot still,” and “Thirty’s the new twenty, nigga / I’m on fire still.” The irony was palpable and painful: if you have to defend your youth, you’ve already lost it. True, Hov’s late friend Biggie Smalls had advised MCs to “treat everything like it’s your first project,” but Big meant to stay hungry—not twenty.

Eminem—another of my favorite rappers from about 1998 to 2003, and another artist raised (infamously) by his mom—is in some ways a more apt analogy: ethnically divergent from most of his peers, anti-establishment, controversial, profane, and beyond redeemed by wordplay bordering on genius.

Eminem just turned forty. Mercifully, at some point in the late oughts, he stopped bleaching his hair, feuding with boy bands, dressing up like Pee-Wee Herman and Madonna in his videos, and rapping like a puppet but not before a lot of us groaned and thought, Dude, you’re like thirty-five. The same irreverence that had ingratiated us to Em in 2000 grated on us in 2005. Rap is a young man’s game, and Eminem’s childish shtick—the hair, the costumes, the feuding, the farting—did not age well. (Odd Future: Consider yourselves on notice.) Like Jay Z and Junot Diaz, he transitioned relatively quickly from anti-establishment to establishment (Eminem has won thirteen Grammys and an Oscar; Jay Z is not a businessman—he’s a business, man), making it hard to take his authority-bucking seriously.

But, here’s the thing: the biggest problem with Jay Z and Eminem’s output in the mid- to late-oughts (and, I would argue, since) was not that they refused to age gracefully or had become too successful for middle fingers and fuck-the-worlds; it was that the material was, not for lack of a better word, wack. They didn’t out themselves as older—we knew that. They outed themselves as past their primes. (Not going to argue about this: Nothing Jay Z has done since coming out of retirement approaches Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint, or The Black Album in terms of quality. Same goes for Eminem pre-2003 vs. post.) This is why the Hov/Em comparison to Diaz ultimately breaks down: because fiction, unlike rap, is not a young man’s game (unless you’re Jay McInerney), and Diaz is in his prime, not past it. He has been nowhere near as inconsistent or prolific as those two. Junot Diaz isn’t Jay Z or Eminem. He’s Dr. Dre, right down to the honorary doctorate.

Diaz, like Dre, is notorious for his plodding pace. (“I just happen to be the slowest writer I know… It’s like discovering you’re awesome at something you also suck at.”) Eleven years separated his first book from his second—seven years passed between Dre’s twin classics, The Chronic and 2001—and although just five years separated the second from the third, Diaz spent over fifteen years writing TIHYLH. His budding, much-hyped sci-fi epic, Monstro, which may or may not ever arrive, is now Diaz’s Detox; he never should have mentioned it. There’s no question Diaz’s process is a painstaking one, no question that, like Dre, he cares deeply about his work and physically exhausts and frustrates the hell out of himself producing it.

So why do some of his sentences come off as, well, lazy?

“God forgive me for my brash delivery But I remember vividly what these streets did to me So picture me letting these clowns nitpick at me…”

—Jay Z, “What More Can I Say”

Yunior, the main character for much of TIHYLH, is Diaz’s alter ego: By the end of the book, he too is a middle-aged writer and professor, living in Boston and plagued by back problems. Like Diaz, Yunior hasn’t forgotten where he’s from, still slips into his first language (Spanish), his second (profanity), and his third (slang) with ease. Traditional English is Diaz’s fourth language, to the point that, even today, “Every English word that comes out of my mouth is being scanned for errors.” Nothing is going to feel as fresh as it did ten or even five years ago, and I guess you can argue that it’s silly or sad for a middle-aged man to talk like a teenager. But Yunior/Diaz isn’t talking like a teenager in 2012 (YOLO!); he’s talking like a teenager in 1982, because he was one, and in some ways he’s still that kid from Paterson, the one who loves hip-hop and comics and can’t stop thinking about the Apocalypse. All I care about is whether or not a voice feels real. Diaz’s does.

The trouble with superfly landscapes, then, is not the word superfly. It’s all the words Diaz leaves out.

Diaz saying “The landscapes were superfly” is no different from me saying that they were “supertight,” or one of my freshman composition students saying they were “supergreat”—a line I would have circled. Supergreat how? Be specific. At times it feels like Diaz is leaning on this vernacular, which critics still hail as hip/fresh/exciting, instead of working at stronger sentences.

Diaz has been called the “Poet Laureate of Pulchritude” for his superhuman ability to describe the female form, but do we really want to applaud him for writing that Nilda had “a chest you wouldn’t believe—I’m talking world-class”? Or that Miss Lora “gets naked like a pro”? These are the kinds of depictions I might have gotten from frat boys when I was teaching. A “world-class” chest could mean gravity-defying Cs or eye-widening Ds, or something else entirely, something otherworldly. When I read “gets naked like a pro,” a handful of snapshots come to mind, all of them half-developed and vying for my attention, like a line of children at a diving board.

In describing Miss Lora, Diaz alternates weak and strong descriptions, writing, “…chick was just wiry like a motherfucker [weak], every single fiber standing out in outlandish definition [strong]. Bitch made Iggy Pop look chub [weak/dated]…” Later he says that the black waves of her hair flowed behind her in the pool “like a school of eel,” and that she tanned herself “into the deep lacquered walnut of an old shoe.” This is what’s so frustrating and confounding: Most of the time Diaz’s imagery is so vivid, it’s clear he doesn’t need to fall back on slang (“his swagger was more or less where it had been before the illness: a hundred percent loco”). He can do so much better than “She’s a big girl and got skin like you wouldn’t believe…” How big? What makes her skin unbelievable? It’s fine to write that “In summer these blocks are ill with activity,” provided you follow up with specifics. Too often in TIHYLH, Diaz doesn’t.

The nerve of this kid, lecturing a Jedi Master of the English Language on diction.

I know not every sentence can be a winner. And I realize Diaz is balancing nifty descriptions with a casual, (sigh) streetwise voice, and that overdoing it with the former can undermine the latter. But he’s made a career out of pulling this trick off, and we naturally hold our favorite artists—writers, rappers, filmmakers, whatever—to a higher standard. Diaz has entered this echelon for me and thousands if not millions of others. This is why I’m nitpicking. This is why I care.

Twice in the above section I highlight Diaz’s claims, in lieu of more vivid vignettes, that we “wouldn’t believe” the chest on Nilda, the skin on Noemi. But the truth is that we would. We’ll believe just about anything—you just have to show it to us.

Evan Allgood's work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Millions, LA Review of Books, The Toast, and The Billfold. He lives in Brooklyn and contributes regularly to Paste. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter @evoooooooooooo.