Tag Archives: Junot Diaz

Comparison of the Role of TV in The Babysitter and Drown

The reputation of television since its introduction to the American consumer in the 1940s has been far from stellar. Pejoratives such as “TV melts your brain” and “the boob tube” are indicative of the long-held view of TV being an anti-intellectual medium, especially in comparison to literature. TV makes an extensive appearance in Robert Coover’s The Babysitter and Junot Diaz’s Drown, but both authors do not condemn or show disdain for television. Rather, Robert Coover and Junot Diaz use TV in their stories to reflect on the way we think about things. In The Babysitter, the TV acts as a mirror to our everyday sexual and aggressive desires, while in Drown, TV demonstrates how we align our feelings onto what’s portrayed on the screen. By portraying TV as a medium of reflection, Coover and Diaz use TV to occasion major plot developments in both their stories. Through TV, Coover effectively allows anything and everything in the Babysitter to happen, while Diaz reveals the pain of loss and betrayal Yunior and his mother feel.

In The Babysitter, Coover uses the presence of the TV to remove the boundaries between reality and fantasy. This can be seen in the blending of the TV programs with the actions of the characters. The western on TV hints its presence during the tickling scene of the babysitter, where “on screen there’s a rattle of hooves, and he and Bitsy are rolling…in a crazy rodeo of long bucking legs” (213) and later more fully manifests itself when Jack imagines himself protecting the babysitter from Mark by slamming “a hard right to the guy’s gut, clips his chin with a rolling left” (212). Meanwhile, on TV the “dark beardy one” receives “a hard blow to the belly” and to “the face” from the “lean-jawed sheriff” (214). When the western fades into a spy show, the storyline: “the man…is following a woman, but she doesn’t know why. The woman passes another man, something seems to happen, but it’s not clear what” (221) likely intimates the sexual tension Mark and Jack feel towards the babysitter, but whether this results in violence (225) or something more consensual (222) is unclear. Indeed, throughout the story we have this idea of something happening, but we’re not sure exactly what happens. The events in The Babysitter couldn’t all have occurred due to logistical problems. For example, Coover provides two drastically different endings: 1) the babysitter wakes up and Mrs. Tucker is pleasantly surprised that the dishes are done and 2) the babysitter and Mrs. Tucker’s children are dead. We know both chain of events couldn’t have happened, but we are not told which one is the correct version. Ultimately, however, the distinction between reality and fantasy is unimportant because there is none. One storyline is not meant to be reality and the others a myriad of unrealities—we are meant to believe they all could have occurred. TV is important in this lack of distinction, for not only do the events in the TV bleed into the events in the story, the nature of TV itself is a fusion of reality and fantasy. In TV lies the difficulty of distinguishing the fictional from the documentary. For Coover, then, TV serves as a reflection—it holds a mirror up to reality, which is pervaded by fantasy to such an extent that the two can be considered integral and inseparable.

TV also blends into the style and structure of The Babysitter. The vignette-like events mimic TV’s form, while the discontinuous collage of narration resembles the collage created by channel switching. From the exclamation of “the dishes are all done!” to the final reply of “let’s see what’s on the late late movie” (239), there is no real closure—the end is akin to pressing the power button on the remote control. The possibility that the entire story takes place on television allows us to explore yet another level of how we view fantasy and its relation to reality. The common adage is that watching TV gives us ideas, and bad ideas at that. But Coover would argue that TV is actually a reflection of our own sexual and aggressive tendencies. If there’s sex and violence in TV, it’s because there is sex and violence in our minds. After all, TV programs aren’t ordained by the supernatural—they are written by humans, and surely reflect what is in our thoughts.

As the manifestation of television became more and more pervading, TV garnered a reputation of being not a medium of information and entertainment, but of manipulation and superficiality. While both Coover and Diaz do not view the TV in a negative light, the cultural presence of TV has changed over the years, and that evolution is clearly present in how the two authors incorporate television in their writings. Coover focuses so much on the TV because in his time, the TV was still considered a newfangled invader. As popular as the TV was in the 1960s, it was still easy to remember a time without the box in the living room. For Coover, there was a huge difference in how life was before TV and how life was after TV. By the time Junot Diaz wrote Drown in the 1990s, TV had become so commonplace that people no longer considered it to be a cultural phenomenon, but an indispensable part of everyday life. While TV dominates the storyline of The Babysitter, TV takes a much more background role in Drown as a culturally embraced setting for social interaction. “Families arranged on their porches, the glow from their TVs washing blue against brick” (1666). We see Yunior watching TV with his mom, after she told him Beto was home. “I put down a towel down on the sofa and we watch television together” (1668). Yunior then recounts how he and Beto watched a porno together at Beto’s apartment, which led to Beto touching him. “I kept my eyes on the television, too scared to watch” (1672). Coincidentally (or not), the TV was on both times when he and Beto were engaged in sexual acts. “We sat in front of his television, in our towels, his hands bracing against my abdomen and thighs…I had my eyes closed and the television was on” (1672-73). And finally, the TV once again unites Yunior with his mother as they watch what seems to be a dubbed version of Bonnie and Clyde. In all these scenes, the TV serves as a background medium for deeper companionship among the characters.

These moments of companionship are important in the overarching plot of Drown because Diaz uses TV to reveal the true feelings of the characters, who often hide behind a mask of coolness. Prime examples are when Yunior watches TV with his mom. “We settle on the Spanish-language news: drama for her, violence for me” (1668). His mother wants to see drama to match her yearning for her husband who has left her, despite knowing the relationship could bring her nothing but pain. Similarly, Yunior desires violence because allows him to displace some of the anger and resentment he harbors towards his former best friend Beto, as well as perhaps himself. “I was angry at him, wasn’t I?” (1668).While Beto is the college boy, the assimilated individual who has shed the heteronormative masculinity, Yunior is stuck hovering between action and inaction. Much of his narrative is composed of references to the present, in relation to the past: “Little has changed” at the pool (1667). “The circuit I make has not changed since my looting days. Bookstore, record store, comic-book shop, Macy’s. Me and Beto used to steal like mad from these places” (1669). For Yunior, his mother represents stagnation, while Beto represents mobility. Though he hates the image of his mother, unable to stop calling his pathetic father (1669-70), he cannot bring himself to leave his New Jersey hometown like Beto, who encourages him to do so. “You need to learn how to walk the world, he told me. There’s a lot out there” (1671). TV offers an avenue for action that Yunior cannot yet do in real life.

Watching Bonnie and Clyde is another attempt at solace for the pain of betrayal for Yunior and his mother. The scenes on the TV lure Yunior and his mother with memories of the true feeling that had existed between the two couples before betrayal separated them. The hail of bullets that are going to tear Bonnie and Clyde apart become a metaphor for the actions that separated Yunior from Beto and his mother from his father. For Yunior, his hail of bullets was when Beto touched him, and the fact that he let Beto touch him. For Yunior’s mother, it was when her husband left her for another woman. Just before Bonnie and Clyde are destroyed in the movie, his mother takes off her glasses. Though this is an act of weariness, it is also a symbolic gesture of not wanting to accept Bonnie and Clyde’s fate, because she is still not ready to let her husband go. Yunior knows that his mother is dreaming “of strolling with my father” (1673) because he too, is dreaming. By subconsciously pairing his mother’s fantasy with his own memories, Yunior indirectly reveals he misses his friendship with Beto. Watching TV allows Yunior to reflect upon these thoughts which he normally wouldn’t allow himself to do. The TV offers “background noise” for Yunior—the same way the TV was on both times when he and Beto were together, it is only when he is watching TV that he allows his mother to yearn freely for his father, and himself for Beto.

Both authors portray television as a medium of reflection. Coover breaks down the barrier between the external world and the internal space of the mind, showing how the programs on TV mirror our own tendencies, while Diaz conveys how we apply what’s on the screen to our own feelings. By using TV extensively in their stories, Robert Coover and Junot Diaz demonstrate the various ways we think about reality, our fantasies, and our emotions.

Works Cited

Baym, Nina, and Robert S. Levine. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: Norton, 2013. Print.

Stagnation and Routine in Junot Diaz’s “Drown”

Throughout this portion from Junot Diaz’s Drown, there is a pervading sense of stagnation. The characters within the story seem to be unmoving. Though the narrator “tries to explain, all wise-like, that everything changes” (1668) to his mother, the reality of the situation is that for him, nothing really actually does change. The narrator’s life is very much stagnant and routine in the way he describes his life and activities. For example, he states, “In the mornings I run” (1670). The way he describes the things he does are described as if he does them routinely, with frequency, every day. Additionally, in his life, nothing has really changed since his teenage years. The main illustration of this being in the way that he still frequents the pool where he used to hang out with Beto and his other rowdy friends. The narrator himself even comments on how “little has changed, not the stink of the chlorine, not the bottles exploding against the lifeguard station” (1667).

Yet, it seems that this sense of stagnation and all-consuming routine to come was foreshadowed in the narrator’s high school teacher’s statement that, “A few of you are going to make it. Those are the orbiters. But the majority of you are just going to burn out. Going nowhere…” (1672-1673). This statement obviously deeply affected the narrator as he “could already see [him]self losing altitude, fading, the earth spread out beneath [him], hard and bright” (1673). He felt he could already see his bleak, going-nowhere-fast future in this teacher’s statement. He would, he was certain, not be an orbiter.

Perhaps, then, in order to deal with this crushing sense that he has already “burnt out”, and that his dreams – whether they be that he could potentially leave this place and make something out of himself or even that he could find and make amends with Beto – are unattainable, the narrator attempts to get lost in routine. For example, though “with the air conditioner on” his mother and him “never open the windows” in the first place, when his mother asks him to make sure the windows are locked, he “goes through the routine anyway” (1668), just for the pure purpose of the mundane-ness of it. This attempt to get lost in routine is echoed further by the narrator’s mother who, when she falls asleep while watching the television, gets lost in dreams of her old life with her husband “strolling under the jacarandas” in her home of Boca Raton (1673). Yet, once she wakes up from the dream to return to her reality, she feels that she must gain a sense of purpose and control again in the routine, and so she demands the narrator, “you better check those windows” (1673).

The story serves the purpose of depicting how easy it is to fall into a routine in order to escape from the possibility of unattainable, seemingly ridiculous dreams, or in order to escape from a very real sense that one is destined to burn out and fail. This idea is perfectly summed up when the narrator thinks about stopping by Beto’s apartment but then simply doesn’t, stating, “I can go back to my dinner and two years will become three” (1667). This means to point to the absolute easiness with which one can completely undo any attempts to change the path they are currently on, and thus continue on that same path, keeping everything just the same.

The Television in “Drown” by Junot Diaz

In Junot Diaz’s  “Drown” the television seems to play a continuous role throughout the story.  In the first sentence, the story begins with the narrator watching TV: “My mother tells me Beto’s home, waits for me to say something, but I keep watching the TV” (1666).  The TV seems at times to mirror the life of the narrator, the event he’s describing or his state of mind.  He is trying to forget Beto and their history, immersing himself in the television programs when his mom mentions him.  The “families” of the neighborhood went out on their porches at night while “the glow from their TVs [washed] blue against the brick.”  This reflects the activities of the younger people during the nights as they swim in the pool.  The narrator and his mother watch television together, “Spanish-language news: drama for her, violence for me” (1668).  The horror of what is being shown on the television echoes the horror in the narrator’s past, a horror his mother wishes he will share with her but he refuses, continuing to ignore her and watches TV instead.  At another point in the story when the narrator is talking about being a “truant” he says he watches a lot of TV.  It seems like the television is also an escape from school, and later in the same passage, it was something that he did when he wasn’t hanging out with Beto, or when Beto was busy with his other friends.

Then the incident happened with Beto, while they were watching a porno on television.  While he was being molested, the narrator continues to watch the television, trying to pretend it isn’t happening.  Again, he is trying to escape his reality as something along the same lines as what is on the television is occurring in his life.  And the second time it happens, again, the narrator mentions the television, saying “[we] sat in front of the television…” (1672). Afterward, he has his “eyes closed and the television [is] on…” (1673).  He is trying to escape from where he is and what has happened.  The story ends with the narrator and his mother watching a “classic” Spanish dubbed movie on television. This movie reflects their lives; they are from the Dominican Republic living in New Jersey, a mix of English and Spanish like the movie.  But while watching the movie he and his mother become “friendly” (1673).  They share similar lives in the United States and have similar experiences which allows them to be close if only briefly.  The television acts as a way for the narrator to escape from his reality, yet what he sees on it only reinforces the problems he faces in his life and his experiences.

Style in Junot Diaz’s “Drown”

“Beto got polite and stopped. No problem, he said, slamming the heavy bag into her face. She hit the cold tile with a squawk, her palms slapping the ground. There you go, Beto said” (Diaz).

Diaz’s stylistic choice in the way that he structures his sentences really stuck out to me as I read the short story “Drown.” It was very easy to read and each sentence seemed to be in a flowing rhythm. This type of writing reminded me in some way of William Carlos Williams. In the poem “A Red Wheelbarrow”, his writing is rhythmic and doesn’t use any superfluous word. Similarly, Diaz’s writing is direct, to the point, and stripped of any unnecessary wordiness. For instance, this style was particularly evident during the scene of brief violence that I have quoted above. In just four sentences Diaz captures the unexpected suddenness of violence. The casual way the author brings the violence into this scene conveys a nonchalant sense of realism. The narrator seems to have no trouble relating this story to the reader and its as if this type of violence is nothing at all out of the ordinary.

Another interesting stylistic choice is Diaz’s use of the Spanish language mixed in with English. The use of Spanish is able to draw the reader into the narrator’s world and highlights a distinction between the Dominican and American cultures. Additionally, the choice to not italicize the words in Spanish was different from most texts that I have seen involving foreign words. By doing so, reading his prose flows very easily between the Spanish and English words without any highlighting or any notable difference between the transitions. This is able to integrate the language into the English text and serves to legitimize both the language and the experiences of those who speak the language.

“You need to learn how to walk the world, he told me. There’s a lot out there.”

Throughout this story, we are forced to see certain aspects of life differently. More specifically, we are forced to take notice of things that constantly happen in the world that may be considered “wrong.” For clarification, we tend to know good and well that things like shoplifting(p. 1669), need for money(p. 1670), blatant disrespect(p. 1668), and molestation(p. 1669) are done by both good and bad people alike, but we tend to push the notions to the back of our minds. We see a lot of things like this presented in this story; and it’s one thing to know and be passive about things like this, but another to read it and bring it to light.

This sentence is important to the overall story because Beto not only seems like a best friend to the main character, but almost like an older brother that is teaching his younger brother about the world. This is interesting because when Beto mentions this to the narrating character, he is simply talking about why he (Beto) interacts with people, yet what is said is so applicable to their relationship in the means that he actually teaches him “good” and “bad” things including sexual encounters.

Another interesting thing related to this sentence is that while it can be agreed that what they are doing is “wrong”, it isn’t necessarily consider it “bad.” For instance with their shoplifting, there is more concern (by all included parties) about them getting caught than the moral implications of it. Likewise, the speaker is clearly unsettled about being touched by Beto, but never really acts to stop it. This relates to what was being mentioned earlier and the topic sentence because is harsh conditions, one must often do what they have to in order to survive and change their mindset in order to cope with it.

Introduction to Junot Diaz

Junot Diaz was born in 1968 in a poor section of the city of Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, and moved to New Jersey at age seven. He attended Kean College in Union before transferring to Rutgers University. Rutgers’ offerings in Latino and African-American history and literature opened new possibilities for creativity and political awareness, and Diaz came “to see himself as a Dominican, an American, and a writer.” After his graduation from Rutgers, Diaz enrolled in the graduate writing program at Cornell University, from which he received a master’s degree in Fine Arts. In 1996 he published a collection of short stores, Drown, which has made him one of the most promising members of contemporary authors.

His experiences as an immigrant serve as a vantage point for his own work, in which he powerfully explores the challenges and rich duality of the immigrant experience.  The young people in his New Jersey stories speak Spanglish, and still incorporate their Caribbean culture into their American lives. Yet Diaz’s narrative space, however, is not one dominated by nostalgic idealization. The narration of the characters struggle of asserting cultural identity is set against the gritty backdrop of petty humiliations and everyday deprivations of inner-city life.

Diaz garnered inspiration for his stories from his own troubled family life. His father left his mother for another woman when Diaz was an adolescent, and his mother could find only substandard employment afterwards due to her poor English. Thus at an early age, Diaz learned to escape his unpromising circumstances through writing. His short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker magazine, which listed him as one of the 20 top writers for the 21st century. He is best known for his two major works: the short story collection Drown (1996) and the novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). Although reviews were generally strong for Drown upon its publication, the arrival of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in 2007 (which won the 2008 Pulitzer prize) prompted a noticeable re-appraisal of Drown. Diaz himself has described his writing style as “…a disobedient child of New Jersey and the Dominican Republic if that can be possibly imagined with way too much education.” He is a MacArthur Fellow, and currently teaches creative writing at MIT.