April 23, 2012

"Miss Lora"

By Junot Díaz
~5200 words

A sixteen-year-old has an intense relationship with a middle-aged woman, the eponymous "Miss Lora."

An unusual feature of this story is its second-person perspective. While not entirely original—David Foster Wallace's "Forever Overhead" comes to mind—it is certainly a rarity. As in Wallace's story, Díaz's protagonist would appear to be an adolescent incarnation of the narrator with whom the latter can no longer completely identify, thus preventing use of the first-person singular. Another similarity with Wallace's story is that Díaz's is told in the present tense. The result is a haunting perpective that seems both tormented by the past and unable to escape it, as in the narrator's memory of his dying brother:
In those last weeks, when he finally became too feeble to run away, he refused to talk to you or your mother. Didn't utter a single word until he died. Your mother didn't care. She loved him and prayed over him and talked to him like he was still O.K. But it wounded you, that stubborn silence. His last fucking days and he wouldn't say a word. You'd ask him something straight up, How are you feeling today, and Rafa would turn his head. Like you all didn't deserve an answer. Like no one did.
The brother's death is the backdrop to the main focus of the plot: the narrator's relationship to Miss Lora, which is recounted in lurid detail in the streetwise voice that Díaz has become renowned for:
You try to be reasonable. You try to control yourself, to be smooth. But you're at her apartment every fucking night. The one time you try to skip, you recant and end up slipping out of your apartment at three in the morning and knocking furtively on her door until she lets you in. You know I work, right? I know, you say, but I dreamed that something happened to you. It's sweet of you to lie, she sighs, and even though she is falling asleep she lets you 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.
Despite the raunchiness on display in this paragraph and elsewhere, there is an aching tenderness in the voice. The narrator's memories of Miss Lora become a mechanism for dealing with his sense of loss regarding the past, which is clearly tied to his brother's death. The subtlety with which Díaz ties together these two seemingly coincidental threads is a great strength of the story.

The voice, as can be seen from the examples already cited, is vibrant and authentic, though not without a few glitches. One has to wonder, for example, when terms such as "fulgurating sadness" and "super asshole" appear in the same sentence. A few tired-sounding or otherwise off-kilter turns of phrase—"the channels of your mind" and "forlorn tones" and "matching underwear underneath"—make an appearance as well. I also wonder about the me in the last sentence ("That makes me shoot like a rocket") of the long passage quoted above. Presumably this is Miss Lora, still speaking after the "she confides" tag, but doesn't it seem more like something a man would say in this situation? (Think of Loverboy's "Lovin' Every Minute of It" and you'll get my drift.) Could it be the narrator—perhaps an unedited remnant of a previous, first-person version of the story? This is where those pesky quotation marks actually have a function!

Finally, some may find Díaz's liberal use of code-switching (free variation between languages, in this case English and Spanish) to be a bit off-putting. Whatever the case, it is a defining feature of his style, and it trips up even TNY's legendary copy editors. Quick, can you spot the misplaced and missing accents in the following snippet?
What do you want, Ma? Se metío por mis ojos.
Por mis ojos my ass, she'd said. Tu te metiste por su culo.
"Miss Lora" is a very strong story. Not quite outstanding, but close.

Satisfactory. Strong (modified 24 December 2012, explanation here).

Note: Starting today, I'll be including a poll at the end of each post that will allow you to register your own evaluation of the story. (You are still free to leave an opinion in the comment thread whether or not you take the poll.)

Reader poll: I found "Miss Lora" to be ___.

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