Thursday, March 28, 2013

Junot Diaz's Story "Miss Lora"--"This is Some Real Shit?"

When I read that Junot Diaz had won the Sunday Times Short Story Award for his story “Miss Lora,” I swore I was not going to say a frickin word about it on this blog. I did not have access to the other stories on the short list--
 "The Gun" by Mark Haddon
"Evie" by Sarah Hall
"The Dig" by Cynan Jones
"Call It 'The Bug' Because I Have No Time to Think of a Better Title" by Toby Litt
"The Beholder" by Ali Smith

So who in the hell am I to second guess the decision of the judges—Joanna Trollope, Andrew O’Hagan, Sarah Waters, Lionel Shriver, and Andrew Holgate?  (At this point, you may be nodding your head sagely or wryly in agreement).

But then I read that O’Hagan called “Miss Lora” a “contemporary classic” and that Holgate said: "If the test of an outstanding short story is that it deepens with every reading, then Junot Diaz's 'Miss Lora' passes that test with flying colours. It is a rich, precise and challenging story whose emotional pull becomes more and more apparent with each revisit.” 

I had already read the story three times—once when it appeared in The New Yorker and twice when it appeared in This is How You Lose Her. (I comment on that book in an earlier blog).  But Holgate's suggestion that the story deepened with every reading, which made it an outstanding story, challenged me, so I read it a fourth time.  You see, I agree that an “outstanding story” deepens with every reading. Maybe I missed something.

After a fourth reading, I find I need help here.  I have been reading and studying and writing about short stories for forty years; I have read thousands of stories multiple times.  Surely, by this time I should know what makes an “outstanding short story” and what does not.  Maybe I deceive myself.  But with all due respects to the honorable judges of the Sunday Times Short Story Award, I just do not see that “Miss Lora” is an outstanding short story.  I wish someone would help me understand how I could be so wrong about a story that has been judged “best” to the tune of some $45,000 American dollars.  Lord, Lord, Lord, that’s a lot of money where I come from!

The piece about Diaz’s win in The Guardian quoted Diaz as saying "Miss Lora" was a "challenging" story to write, noting, "We tend, as a culture, to think of boys having underage sex quite differently to how we think of girls. I find that quite disturbing, and wanted to question the logic of that," he said. "If a boy has sex with his teacher, people under their breath are kind of high-fiving the kid. If a 16- or 15-year-old girl has sex with an older teacher – forget about it. No one's celebrating. That seemed really strange."
Díaz said he grew up "with so many young men who had experiences when they were teenagers with older women, and was interested in writing about the issue. "The silence around it is pretty enormous," he said. "I think it is a conversation we need to continue to have."
Since this all sounds like pretty damned serious stuff for a story about a kid whose girlfriend won’t let him screw her, so he turns to an older woman who will, Diaz repeated This apologia for the story on an interview on the BookTrust blog:
"So many of the young men I grew up with had, during their adolescences, these difficult-to-categorize sexual relationships with older women. What's unnerving is that because we think of adolescent boys - especially teenagers of colour - as already hypersexualised, we tend not to consider these kinds of relationships as criminal and abusive as we do similar relationships that involve teenage girls. I wanted to jump right into the middle of the awful ambivalence. And I also wanted to do justice to that mid-1980s atmosphere of apocalyptic dread that I grew up in. So many of my students and younger nephews have no idea how fearsomely apocalyptic that period was, how the shadow of nuclear annihilation was over all of us. I guess this is one of those sex and the apocalypse stories, my very own, New Jersey, Mon Amour."

I am sure Diaz will forgive me as he laughs all the way to the bank if I say, “Bullshit!” I cannot see that Diaz is exploring an “issue” in this story.  Granted, our culture is more willing to “forgive,” “understand,” even approve of, sex between a young boy and an adult woman than sex between an adult man and an underage girl. Diaz may find that “very strange,” but this story does not deal with that social issue in any way.  I don’t think a story has to deal with an “issue” at all, but I think it is pretentious for Diaz to suggest that his story does contribute to a “conversation” about this one.
Diaz told Sam Anderson in The New York Times that “Miss Lora” was the easiest story in the book to write; he said he tried to write the first page several time in the last decade but never wrestled with it too much.   “And then one day it just hit, beginning to end.”  And that’s how it reads—like a riff in which various bits are stitched together whether they are related or not—apocalypse fear, a dead brother, an older woman, a girlfriend who won’t give in—all connected by the horniness of a sixteen-year-old Dominican boy.
Well, I read it again last night before I went to bed—a fifth reading—and this morning I am reading it slowly, taking notes, the way I would if I were teaching the story—a sixth reading.  Is that enough? Please God, say yes, that’s enough.   In this, my final, I swear, reading, I have translated all the Spanish (what some critics like to praise as “Spanglish”), and I went back and read all the reviews of This is How You Lose Her.  No reviewer singled out “Miss Lora” for special consideration, but everybody praised Diaz’s combination of street talk and big words.  According to the reviewers, it takes a special kind of prose brilliance to be able to say “You were sixteen years old and you were messed up and alone like a motherfucker” in one breath and talk about “atavistic impulses” and “fulgurating sadness” in another.
Yunior/Diaz says he is at the age when you could “fall in love” with a girl over a gesture.  He says that’s what happened when his girlfriend Paloma stooped to pick up her purse, and his “heart flew out” of him.  Oh, Romeo, was it really Juliet’s sweet ass that won your heart? As Yunior so romantically puts it, “Only Puerto Rican girl on the earth who wouldn’t give up the ass for any reason.”  So after one night when he is allowed to “touch Paloma’s clit” with the tip of his tongue and she holds his head back with “the force of her whole life,” he “gives up, demoralized.”  I mean, can you blame the kid for turning to Miss Lora—a woman who happily pops his rabo in her mouth while he holds her “tresses like reins…urging her head to keep its wonderful rhythm,” adding generously, “You really do have an excellent body, you say after you blow your load.” How can he resist a woman who lets him “bone her straight in the ass”? "Fucking amazing, you keep saying for all four seconds it takes you to come.  You have to pull my hair while you do it, she confides.  That makes me shoot like a rocket.”  Didn’t I see that in a porno movie once?
Even though Diaz says he is trying to deal with the apocalyptic fears of the 1980s in the story, what he really talks about here are the movies he saw—The Late Great Planet Earth, The Day After, Threads, Red Dawn, WarGames, Gamma World.  Yep, this kid is really suffering from fear of the end of the world as we know it. And this is why he gets involved with an older woman. Sure.  Guys used to use that “end of the world” line back in the fifties and sixties when the Russians were coming too.
I am not a prude.  I have defended sexually explicit writing in print and in court.  However, I do not see that “Miss Lora” is “about anything” except a sixteen-year-old wanting sex.  I suspect that many sixteen-year-old boys do.  And I have no objection to someone using male adolescent sexual desire as the basis of a story.  However, I think a story should be “about something” more than just having sex.  There is no thematic relationship in “Miss Lora” between sex with an older woman and fear of the end of the world.  The only thematic relationship between sex with an older woman and the death of Yunior’s older brother in the story is simply that, as the second paragraph proudly states, he would “fuck anything.” Now, Yunior will “fuck anything” also.  So that’s what this story is about?  A sixteen-year-old-boy who would “fuck anything.”  As Diaz/Yunior would say, “That’s some real shit.”
To repeat what one of the judges of The Sunday times Short Story Award said after giving Juno Diaz $45,000: "If the test of an outstanding short story is that it deepens with every reading, then Junot Diaz's 'Miss Lora' passes that test with flying colours. It is a rich, precise and challenging story whose emotional pull becomes more and more apparent with each revisit.” (No pull pun intended, I am sure).  Well, I have revisited “Miss Lora” as many times as I can bear.  If someone would tell me what makes this an “outstanding story,” I would much appreciate it.


barbara renel said...

Maybe even judges get swayed by hype? Sarah Hall's 'Evie' would have been my choice.

Zoe said...

There's been a lot of comment recently on sex in literature, or lack of it. I wonder whether dealing deftly with such content has alone grabbed the attention of the prize judges, who then reach out for justification thinking they should not be swayed only by that?

Jane O'Hara said...

Thank you so much. I gave up on the story two thirds down the first page, bored and irritated. At least now I don't feel guilty that I didn't struggle through it - you've done the hard work for me (six times over!).

Keith Hood said...

Prizes of any caliber (Pulitzer, Nobel, National Book Award, Orange Prize, ad infinitum) are such a crap shoot.

I recently attended some craft talks by Junot Diaz where he acknowledged the same. He said that there is no way that "The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" was anywhere near being the best book written in 2008 when his book won the Pulitzer. Diaz acknowledged that there were many more (mucho mas) books published in 2008 better than his and that his win was just luck and nothing more.

I agree that it was luck. I disagree about it being nothing else. I think Diaz is (most of the time) a good writer and it's unlikely (not impossible) that somewhat without any talent at all will win a major literary prize. But, I'm a voracious reader of short fiction and of the five nominated Sunday Times Short Story Award authors Diaz is the only one of authors I've read. I could come up with mucho mas stories to qualify for the Sunday Times Short Story Award than the five stories listed. Where should I start?

Stories from Alice Munro's "Dear Life", stories from "Tenth of December" by George Saunders, even stories by less known authors like Daniel Mueller and his excellent collection "Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey" likely deserve more consideration for the Sunday Times Short Story Award than Diaz.

But, Diaz won the prize. It is what it is. Diaz, without doubt, knows that mucho mas authors deserve that 45K more than he but what good does it do for him to pull a Sacheen Littlefeather refusal of Marlon Brando's Oscar win? Yes, Diaz win is some real shit" but I bet he'd agree with you

Lena Paulsen said...

Why does the story have to be "about " something? Why must there be a so called thematic relationship? This is a story written in minimalist style - and as such it doesn't have to have a moral or a point. I really enjou it because it doesn't. But there are many things to think about. I understand the main character; he lost his brother to cancer, and losing his life to the bomb must be much the same: a horrible death you have no control over. This experience marks him permanently. He then connects with a woman who grew up with a suicidal father and who also lived with fear to an insane degree, so she is also marked. Their relationship is weird; they are both weird, outsiders. And their relationship is tabboo. Does he use her? Does she use him? Is there love between them? Why can't he forget her? Is he a womanizer and she a criminal? And there is so much more in this story to think about! That's why it's great.

Charles E. May said...

Hi, Lena, thanks for your comment. I agree with you that a story does not "have" to be about "something." I just posted a blog on the stories of Jess Walter, and they are not about anything--just pleasantly diverting narratives.

However, Diaz has said that "Miss Lena" is "about something." However, the story itself, in my opinion, does not support such claims.

The things you say there are to "think about" in the story are not explored or developed or examined or meaningfully presented by Diaz. The "end of the world" stuff is merely adolescent movie fan material. The death of the brother may play a role in other Diaz stories, but not in this one, except for his sexual prowess. Miss Lora may indeed have had a difficult past, but there is no indication that this is why she has sex with an adolescent boy.

Besides, I am not arguing that "Miss Lora" is not an interesting story, just that it is not an "outstanding story" worthy of the world's biggest short story prize for best story of the year.

I agree with Keith Hood's comment here that there were many more stories much better than "Miss Lora" published this past year.

Lena Paulsen said...

Charles - you are right that Diaz is not a master (like Flannery O'Connor or Raymond Carver), but he is still very good! Were there others better than him in the competition? Maybe so - I don't know. I think sometimes these prizes are given to authors who give us something new, a style, setting, subject that has not been prominent before.
To a degree it's also a matter of taste and how a story speaks to the reader. I don't think that there are any elements in "Miss Lora" that are not developed in a meaningful way. They all have their place and purpose. For example, I was young, too, during the cold war and remember the fear that the main character expresses - the feeling that a bomb could be dropped on us at any moment. That fear grows into an obsession for the main character because of his brother's death - and it leaves him vulnerable to a new obssession, which is the comfort of Miss Lora. In this way I see how all of the elements of the story are connected.

Francine McKenna said...

I had the same reaction to all the praise about "Boy Kings of Texas" and I like books about the Mexican-American experience. The "Spanglish" was irritating, the repetitive stories of fights and drunkenness were there to titillate only. The point of it all was lost on me. I think some work too hard to pull deep meaning out of what is none other than raucous memoir. Junot Diaz best book was "Drown" and still is.

Charles E. May said...

Lena, I hope you and I can agree to disagree on "Miss Lora."

Charles E. May said...

Good to hear from you, Francine. I have to say that I was not crazy about "Drown" either, but must admit that I did like it better than Diaz's most recent collection, but maybe that's because that was when he introduced Yunior. Now after three books about Yunior, I think I have had enough. I begin to wonder if Diaz has anything else to say except the same thing over and over again. But then why should he, since he is making so much money on the same thing over and over again?

Beth said...

Bracing -- indeed, the emperor has no clothes. The shame, of course, is that Diaz might be writing some really good stuff if he weren't getting so much praise for not much.

Justus said...

Awarding this short story such a prize is the greatest disservice to literature. It's a trash and is utterly meaningless. Very puerile.

ben said...

What's your gripe with Diaz? go write your own and its pretty smart of you to refer to the story as "Miss Lena."

Anonymous said...

Thank-you so much for stepping up and voicing your opinion. You were reading my mind. I felt throughout my reading (twice, how could you bear six!) that the accolades came more from White guilt than anything else. The story is crude and poorly crafted. Our dead masters are rolling over in their graves. It made me so discouraged about the current world of short story publication. I guess you have to be gross to get any recognition. I like you feel like the kid in The Emperor's New Clothes. For me, if there is not one character in a story, film, novel, etc. that I do not care about then what's the point? Diaz managed to assemble a group of the most shallow, unlikable characters of all time. I believe he knows exactly the con he pulled off and is laughing all the way to the bank.

Sprocket said...

"However, I do not see that “Miss Lora” is “about anything” except a sixteen-year-old wanting sex. I suspect that many sixteen-year-old boys do. And I have no objection to someone using male adolescent sexual desire as the basis of a story. However, I think a story should be “about something” more than just having sex. "

You do the story a great dis-service by not reading it as an example of an unreliable narrator.

Diaz' whole point is that this is *not* the story of a 16-year-old "having sex" is a the story of a victim of child rape who is unable to recognise himself as a victim due to social conditioning. Thus the bravado and the apocalyptic under-current. The story is describing the most apocalyptic thing in the world. it is not a story about "sex" it is a story about rape, as Diaz has made clear. Why do you think he is being disingenuous in this or writing in bad faith?

Anonymous said...

So true. Anything I've read by Junot Diaz is about an insecure teenage boy who swears (apparently that makes the "voice" authentic) and wants to have sex. Diaz doesn't seem to have anything else to say. Totally overrated.