What Can We Steal From Junot Diaz’s “Alma”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Alma,” short story
Author: Junot Diaz
Date of Work: 2007
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was originally published in The New Yorker.  As of this writing, the story is available on the magazine’s web site.  “Alma” is part of Mr. Diaz’s short story collection, This Is How You Lose Her.  Hey, the Internet isn’t all bad; here’s a video of Mr. Diaz reading his story.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View

Discussion:
Junot Diaz is one of this generation’s vast pride of literary lions.  The Dominican-American broke through big time with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and is now collecting awards when he’s not teaching at MIT.  “Alma” features many of Mr. Diaz’s common themes and literary techniques.  The second-person story stars Yunior, a young man challenged by fidelity.  The story employs a hyperkinetic, hyper-heterosexual diction that reads like a conversation with a lively and worldly friend.  Yunior is proud of his Dominican heritage and sees the world through a lens influenced by the language and culture.

The story establishes point of view very quickly and introduces the titular character and how Yunior feels about her:

You, Yunior, have a girlfriend named Alma, who has a long tender horse neck and a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans.

That’s right, we’re in second-person.  YOU are Yunior and you spend a lot of time thinking about Alma’s behind and dreaming up alternate ways of describing it.  For three pages, YOU experience the life that Yunior and Alma share.  She’s a good woman, learning Spanish for YOU with opposite interests and a free attitude in bed.

Then you find out that YOU are “also fucking this beautiful freshman girl named Laxmi.”  YOU discover that Alma is not very happy about that and YOU try one great lie, but “this is how you lose her.”  (I love when a book’s title appears in the story!)

Diaz makes the story immediate and personal and summarizes the relationship at such a breakneck pace that the reader has no choice but to follow along.  The second-person point of view explicitly puts the reader in the position of your protagonist, so the narrative distance is already substantially decreased.  Diaz keeps you even more involved in the story with his long, intense sentences.  For example:

Alma is slender as a reed, you a steroid-addicted block; Alma loves driving, you books; Alma owns a Saturn, you have no points on your license; Alma’s nails are too dirty for cooking, your spaghetti con pollo is the best in the land.

The story is only a few pages long; these kinds of sentences accomplish multiple aims.  They add characterization while releasing exposition and establishing tone all at once while adding momentum to the story.  Mr. Diaz knows he doesn’t have a lot of page space, so he makes the most of every line.

What Should We Steal?

  • Lock the reader in with second person and pull them along for a ride.  We spend so much time in first person; it can be refreshing to relax into a different consciousness.
  • Employ longer sentences to decrease narrative distance and increase intensity, particularly in a very short story.  There are times when short and simple is fitting.  (For example, saying “I love you.”)  On the other hand, long, energetic sentences can also do a lot for you when employed properly.

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