My father is not a fan of fiction. The implications of this could be cruel and boring – the most onerous of Künstlerroman clichés – but there is no Oedipal struggle for recognition in my family. It is just that my father – who is well read in the Classics, as well as mid-century American letters (Pynchon, Bellow, Mailer, Salinger) – has no time for our modern literary scene: unobtrusive ephemera from the MFA factories and bloated vanity pieces from established masters. Of the latter – including late works from Irving, Kingsolver, Franzen and Russo – he frequently remarks, where are the editors of yesteryear? Of the former he says nothing.
When we went together to see Junot Díaz read – my father suffering from a nasty drip-cough and I behind on grading – I felt like my artistic medium itself was on trial. But Díaz – who I interviewed earlier this year – delivered the goods.
The Junot Díaz Show, as I’ve come to call it, always proceeds the same way. Even accompanied by writers in their best Franzen-formalwear, Díaz arrives in chunky running shoes and sweat-suit. Whether reading or answering questions, he rubs his face and head and trips over his first few words – the desired effect, the achieved illusion, is that Díaz is just a humble homeboy, speaking honestly and extemporaneously. You’re not supposed to notice – and, in fact, many people don’t notice – as Díaz shifts into well-rehearsed and frequently brilliant monologues. The story Díaz read – “Nilda” – functioned the same way, a funny but unexceptional story about a young man on the edge of empathy for a girl, watching as she gets the life ground out of her by the senseless maschismo of the men in her life. Díaz concluded the reading with a passage near the end of the story, “None of us wanted to be niggers. Not for nothing.”
In and of itself, Díaz’s writing is worth the time to read – for exactly this kind of switchback moment: you’re laughing and then there’s blood on the ground, Díaz having uttered the most profane of all ethnic sentiments – not wanting anything to do with your own people. It’s not a new trick, but it’s done well. Performed, Díaz’s work is even stronger – the 92Y reading was a perfect example of how the Show works best, with an audience of old white art patrons seeded with young Hispanics and emulsified with graduate students and star-struck MFAs who know that Díaz will stand and chat with aspiring writers for a minute or two if they’ve purchased his book for him to sign. The high-school kids – bused down from Harlem and the Bronx to the Upper East side to meet with Díaz before the show – roar when Díaz rolls out the exquisite Dominican profanity; the MFAs and post-grads nod knowingly when Díaz drops comic-book knowledge: “this was back when the X-men still made some kind of fucking sense.” Díaz tacked on the “fucking” to the live version, and it paid howling dividends. The mash-up of nerd-life and thug-life is Díaz’s thing, or rather, one of his things, and seeing the shifting terrain of identification, like water sloshing in a wave pool, is exciting and illuminating.
But then we get to the most important part of the Show, when Díaz takes questions – or, to be more accurate, uses questions as an opportunity to defend his art and art in general. Before the show, Díaz – working the room for five minutes, serving as his own opening act – jokingly thanked the audience for paying to see him perform, but then quickly massaged the joke into a defense of “the arts” in political terms. It was an easy sell – to obliged nobles and students – but Díaz pushed the point anyway, “we need art, man, because the more art we have the harder it is to create nightmare vampires like Mitt Romney… and, when the fucking nightmare vampires win, you know, well, art will sustain us.”
Audience members were encouraged to write questions on note-cards and submit them, and I thought about pointing out that many tyrants have been enthusiasts – even patrons – of the arts. Hitler was a painter. Mao was a poet (Per Petterson took a line from one of Mao’s poems for the title of his outstanding new novel, “I Curse the River of Time”). And here and now, in our contemporary moment, we have stone-age fanatics who hold the novel Atlas Shrugged to their chest and swear an oath on it. Is Díaz prepared to defend all art? Could he defend – to my father, for example – the milquetoast bumbling of apolitical, ahistorical fiction that fills our shelves? Could he defend – to me – the reactionary works of Martin Amis, Jonathan Franzen and David Mamet, which flee on a calculated angle designed to escape literary and social progress with equal speed?
Perhaps he could – Díaz is smart, smarter perhaps than he gives us credit for realizing. We could have it out. On the one side: my own – admittedly fascist – fantasy of burning bad books, including YA vampire thrillers, reductive identity-politics, sloppy memoir-cum-fiction, conservative tripe of all genres and styles. On the other side: Díaz’s fantasy of Athena – the Art that armors and sustains, nourishes and protects.
We’re both dreaming, although Díaz gets to dream out loud.
After waiting in line, my father and I met Díaz, who recognized my tattoos – if not my name – and, impressively, the conversation we had on the train from the Bronx to Manhattan, about family diaspora (his African, then Dominican; mine, on my father’s side, Jewish, then Russian). My father – who had enjoyed Díaz, laughing even at vulgar challenges thrown at the audience’s paler sections – seemed momentarily cured of his cough and gave Díaz a hearty handshake. Díaz and I spoke for only a moment, and then he signed my copy of his latest collection, This Is How You Lose Her, with “Ben – My Brother.”
My biological brother – who is a talented artist, a painter and sculptor – has, like my father, little taste for fiction. It seems to me he finds it – as a medium – too indirect, too problematic; as for the contemporary style, he’s appalled by its petty Egoism, the narcissism of small details. He’s never read In Search of Lost Time, but just the thought of Proust lying in his bed and waxing mnemonic about a cookie – while the world was raped, burnt and plundered – would cause him excruciating pain. He might like Díaz, though, because beneath Díaz’s jokes, beneath his savvy blend of graphic-novel hermits and cunt-addled fiends, there is always the raw and bleeding wound of history, the cool savagery of proxy wars and puppet dictators, the visceral brutality of rapes and beatings, of slavery and oppression and racism.
Mi hermano. I could be cynical. It would not surprise me – so smooth is the operation of the Díaz Show – that first-time signees get “Peace and Art” (as I received on my copy of Drown), while returning signees graduate to “My Brother” or “My Sister.” I will likely never graduate to “My Nigga” – I turn darkly Semitic in the summer, sometimes bearded like an Arab, but it’s still a bridge too far. But, then again: what am I, if not a bastard immigrant child? My family’s past – like Díaz’s – disappears beyond the American generations. My family line is swallowed up in the revolutionary death-throes of Tsarist Russia, in the nameless famine-graves of Ireland.
And, behind the machinations of the Show, beyond the racial politics, can I allow myself to believe in a brotherhood of art, or – to displace some of that implicit Hemingway boy’s club shit – a family of artists? Do I help nourish the resistance against nightmare vampires? Do I help prevent them? Do I want to? The official line is: no. I’m Team Nero – Rome is burning, we’re fiddling. As Benjamin Van Loon put it, succinctly: “this world is a cesspool.” Plus, I can’t afford a Díaz-sized Ego; my scribbling might not reach more than a hundred people in my lifetime, much less save the world. I’m sorry world, but you’re burning, and we need music, just the same.
And so, in the end, I’m afraid I remain agnostic, as ever. I turn my eyes to the sky. Pale gases illuminated by distant fire. Night comes, the rain tapers off. Tiny points of light, even more distant, impossibly distant fires. I want so much to believe, my brother, but even the strongest belief is – at core – a performance. But perhaps, when the show is over – when the lights die and the applause evaporates – you feel the same way. In that silence, in that darkness, we have our common bond.