“Invierno” is the penultimate story by Junot Diaz, and the fourth, that I’m going to review. Although “review” seems presumptuous. It’s more like I am reacting in print to a primary cultural document. For while I have been exasperated by the predatory male gaze, the male adolescent gaze, of many of these stories…and been ambivalent, if not to say irritated, by the social and cultural Hispanic ghetto that the stories have placed me in…uncomfortable to me because it is not my habitat or my language and because I spent a childhood trying to escape a ghetto of my own; nothing is clearer than that there is no more essential literary voice than that of Junot Diaz.
“Invierno” is winter to those who know it not. The nullity of snow to those who have barely heard of it. The story is what I would call a family romance, the telling of a personal myth of what you think your family was like…composed as much of facts and events as of wishes and nightmares, preserved in the amber of childhood memories, never forgotten but not necessarily accurately remembered. Call it a true fiction.
There’s a positive side to the new development, called London Terrace, where Yunior’s family have established a beachhead in the United States…much as if Apollo 11 had landed in a promising crater on the moon.
The only partly finished apartment buildings have a laundry room in each basement. Rafa and Yunior’s shared bedroom is the largest personal space that they’ve ever had. The kitchen, with refrigerator and stove, is as large in itself as their old house. But Diaz describes the neighborhood terrain as if it was as alien as a lunar landscape. The freezing cold making it seem like they’re on another planet. How long does winter last?
Raf and Yunior are confined to the house, if for no other reason than their father insists, perhaps to maintain his illusion of control. TV is considered the ticket to acculturation, to learning the language, and the more you watch of it the better. Diaz, with beautiful irony, describes the kids’ minds as “spiky sunflowers in need of the light”, the light being the boob tube. They watch about nine hours of TV a day.
Their mother has a much harder time picking up English. The words she tries to reproduce sound garbled. Her husband tells her the average woman can’t learn English, it’s too difficult a language. You also sense that he doesn’t want her to learn. He says: “I’ll take care of the English.”
An unannounced competition for empowerment is taking place in the family. Papi sees his wife’s acculturation to America as a threat. He’d rather keep her in a self-imposed harem, giving himself more maneuvering room….for what?
Invierno shifts into parallel plotting which reflects a changed dynamic in Yunior’s family. While the kids and their father adapt to the States, their mother is left psychologically unmoored. She’s been separated from her family, friends and neighbors back in the Dominican Republic. They would have functioned as her natural support group. Her only interpersonal contacts are her immediate family, two immature sons and a increasingly diffident, authoritarian husband. She’s been cut off from her own gender in a New Jersey gulag.
But everyone in the family is meant to feel alien. The white families desert the neighborhood before long. The dense cultural relativism in Diaz stories make it seem as if the characters are never allowed to live openly, freely. They are fish rarely swimming in their own ocean but more like sea creatures trying to paddle through a thick, cultural soup, and that soup is cold, nearly frozen.
Diaz hits a magisterial tempo as he carefully works out the consequences of the Dominican family’s move to the States. As Yunior puzzles over how to tie his own shoes to his father’s inscrutable satisfaction, you sense the marital bond slowly ripping apart. It’s a slow, soft, ripping sound I hear as their father gradually becomes more distant and more absent from the household, taking advantage of the fact that he is more culturally adapted than his wife.
The announcement of an impending snowstorm leads to Papi’s declaration that he won’t be able to get back home from work. He’ll stay over, leaving his family to face the unknown terrors of their first snowstorm alone. You sense that we’ve reached the end-stage in the dissolution of the marriage. The children don’t realize it, but you sense the weight of consequence that must have fallen on their mother, now truly alone. Diaz makes you feel it with her walk in the alien snow, her children propping her up on either side in the frigid element. It’s the emotional highlight of the story.
Junot Diaz over-determines his stories. This is a fascinating thing. The narratives, down to the sentence level, are so densely packed with incident, observation and consequence. This especially shows in a major literary effort like “Invierno”. It’s as if 120% of writing power is packed into stories that would still be very good if they only had 80%. It’s as if the intelligence being applied to Invierno is more powerful that what the genre requires. But you can get that feeling about great art, whether it’s painting, music or literature. The writing power is untamed by the text that attempts to contain it.