Díaz's narrative, following the logic of the historical preamble that frames it, moves ever backward in search of origins and causes, unearthing patterns that come to seem like fate--the stories you can never escape retelling in your own life. Beli, Lola and Oscar all end up in La Inca's stern care; Beli and Lola both rebel against maternal figures, and both get sent to snobby Dominican private schools where they're humiliated by the popular girls and take refuge in reckless affairs. Indeed, the strongest fate is desire itself. If Oscar's body bars him from sex, not so for the women in his family. Girls burst into voluptuousness virtually overnight, driving themselves and everyone around them crazy. An atmosphere of humid lust hangs over the novel like the smell of soiled sheets. But sex is a political phenomenon as much as a natural one, because there's always someone more powerful who wants you against your will, or who wants what you want. Abelard meets his grim end trying to protect his eldest daughter from Trujillo's predations. Beli, at 16, becomes the mistress of a man who turns out to be the husband of Trujillo's sister. And so it ultimately goes in Oscar's story, too: desire, danger, defiance, destruction.
But only once he gets back to the island. That's the other form fate takes: the homeland from which you can never escape. All roads lead back to Santo Domingo--to Trujillo, to the country that kept him in power, to the colonial history that made him possible in the first place. "Santo Domingo will always be there," Lola is told by a sympathetic stranger on her way out of the country after yet another doomed entanglement. "It was there in the beginning and it will be there at the end." The stranger, whose words again invoke Díaz's "Ground Zero" conceit, means to offer comfort, but of course, the fact that "it will be there at the end" is felt by the novel as a tragedy. Indeed, this is a book that keeps trying to end but can't quite manage to do so. Chapter Seven, "The Final Voyage," is followed by Chapter Eight, "The End of the Story," which is followed in turn by still another, unnumbered chapter, "The Final Letter." "On a Super Final Note," one subhead reads, then a few pages later the narrator assures us, or himself, that "It's almost done. Almost over. Only some final things to show you." One of those things is Lola's daughter, American-born, whom he hopes can finally bring the story--her uncle's story, her family's and by now the narrator's, too--to an end. No more fukú, no more unfinished historical business. But another one of those things is a panel Oscar has marked in one of his comic books. One character says, "I did the right thing, didn't I? It all worked out in the end." And the other replies, "In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends."
But Díaz is not content to leave his intuitions about divided identity--about an American story everywhere shadowed by a Dominican one--at the levels of plot, structure and theme. The same perceptions interfuse his every sentence. For what is most striking about his writing is his voice, and what is most striking about his voice is the audacity, bounce and brio of its bilingualism. The energy that drives it is the energy of youth, of the streets, of desire--but it is also the energy of two languages meeting in secret for hot, illicit sex. This is Lola, who gets to narrate her own story:
I ran off, dique, because of a boy.
What can I really tell you about him? He was like all boys: beautiful and callow, and like an insect he couldn't sit still. Un blanquito with long hairy legs who I met one night at Limelight.
But the Spanish track--which carries rhythms and idioms as well as individual words--is often turned up higher than this in the mix: "from the richest jabao in Mao to the poorest güey in El Buey, from the oldest anciano sanmacorisano to the littlest carajito in San Francisco." Not only are the two languages woven seamlessly together into a thrillingly rhythmic line; both are treated with an exhilarating improvisational freedom. Díaz's voice sweeps together ghetto slang, pop cultural nods and winks, puns, historiographic excursuses and blunt, unsentimental lyricism. And he sustains it for the length of a novel without faltering. One can only imagine the prodigies of effort that went into achieving this illusion of effortlessness.
Díaz's bilingualism aims at more than oral gratification, however. It also seems designed to make his readers, or at least his Anglo readers, uncomfortable. Sometimes you can guess the meaning of a Spanish word from its context, sometimes you can't (and the idiomatic nature of Díaz's language means the dictionary often doesn't help). Sometimes there is no context: Díaz occasionally reels off entire sentences in Spanish, leaving the nonspeaker helpless. It's a more aggressive version of what Rushdie does in Midnight's Children with his Hindi puns and idioms, which shift the balance of linguistic power away from the imperial audience. Here it extends to constructing that audience as naïve and ignorant through teasing authorial addresses ("One final final note, Toto, before Kansas goes bye-bye") and long didactic footnotes ("For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history...") that relegate the Anglo reader to the margin of the page.
Díaz's projected Dominican reader--someone like Beli or Lola--is not always treated more courteously, though. His range of reference is replete with high-brow allusions that remind us that we're reading the work of an English professor: Corbusier, Madame X ("You ever seen that Sargent portrait...? Of course you have"), Joseph Conrad's wife and "those nightmare eight-a.m. MLA panels." And few readers, I imagine, will be quite as conversant as is the narrator--who seems as knowledgeable about these matters as Oscar himself--with the many realms of science fiction, whose denizens appear as points of reference on virtually every other page.
Only one person, really, is capable of feeling fully comfortable within the novel's cultural universe: Junot Díaz. And I think this is the point. In trying to negotiate the distance between his two worlds--the world he's writing to and the world he's writing about, the world of people who read serious fiction ("us lit majors") and the world of people who live tough lives on the islands and in the cities--Díaz is seeking to carve out a space that's uniquely his own: Dominican Spanish plus literary English plus comic books plus North Jersey, etc., etc. One of the novel's epigraphs quotes Derek Walcott's famous line "Either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation," but the idea cuts two ways. Díaz is giving voice to his nation, but he is also giving voice to himself as a nation.
If the narrators in Drown seem unaware of their existence as narrators, the narrator here places his construction of the book at the forefront of our attention, constantly making us aware of how he consults sources, tapes witnesses and wrestles with the veracity of Cabral family legends, and before all this, of how Oscar's story had haunted him for ten years with its demands to be told. Much of this performance implicitly acknowledges the narrator's uncertain status, as an emigrant, relative to Santo Domingo. He anticipates objections from skeptical Dominican readers that he's trafficking in Dominican stereotypes, inserts last-minute corrections based on new information from native informants, even questions the legitimacy of the whole notion of fukú as a form of historical explanation that mystifies more sociopolitically specific forms of bad fortune.
As a character, Oscar remains something of a blank, perhaps deliberately: not only relatively underdeveloped--we ultimately see much less of his inner life, and even his outer life, than those of a whole handful of other characters--but also unknowable, the author, in his final weeks, of a lost and unrecoverable book that was to have explained everything. But the book we do have, in the figure of its alert, impassioned, conflicted narrator, proposes a defiant new model of immigrant personhood.