The Magician

by Zack Graham


There is a preternatural precision to Hernán Diaz’s every syllable, word, phrase, and sentence. No room to spare. He doesn’t let you breathe. What’s more, he is a writer capable of conceptual translation. He can turn the banal into the fascinating. He can reduce the complex into the basic. He can even make the gruesome majestic. His description of a surgery from the late 1700s, for example:

“A few inches above the point where the elbow once had been, the wagon wheel had ground the flesh to a dark paste and smashed the bone to shards and splinters. With extreme care, he cleaned the wound with alcohol and clipped off the tassels of flesh and nerves at the end of the stub. He then found the main vein and artery and tied them off with suture, after which he made four vertical incisions into the healthy part of the arm, through the muscle and all the way down to the bone, and created two flaps with the skin. He pushed up the biceps and the flesh receded with it, which allowed him to saw the bone off just above the point where it had shattered… After trimming and filing the humerus, Håkan let the flesh down, sewed the muscles over the bone and the flaps over the muscles, and daubed the stump with one of the salves the short-haired man had given him.” 

Who knew an amputation could read like classical ballet?

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Diaz is a career academic who burst onto the literary scene in late 2017 with his debut novel In The Distance (excerpted above), which began as an unagented manuscript submitted to Coffee House Press and ended up becoming a Pulitzer Prize finalist as well as a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Since the publication of In The Distance, which is perhaps the best literary western since Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Diaz has published stories in Granta, The Kenyon Review, and The Paris Review—stories that rival some of the best fiction those magazines have published in recent years.

Two qualities of Diaz’s fiction differentiate it from the bulk of fiction being published today. The first: his insistence upon giving agency to inanimate objects. He frequently makes them the subjects of his sentences, which results in the creation of fictive atmospheres in which everything described is watching. The second: Diaz displays a flawless ability to move back and forward through time. Massive amounts of time, in fact.

“The years would go by. His animals would die… Old age would overtake him. Sickness would shrivel his innards. Once beasts and maggots were done with his flesh, some of his bones would remain scattered on the plains for longer than he had lived. Then, he would be erased.” 

Diaz’s stories are the linguistic equivalents of James Turrell installations. You experience them as they experience you — timelessly, directionlessly; in variegated shades, as landscapes that you later realize are simply the pattern of your reality. He is able to bend the world around the lens of his vision, a world in which everything is alive, present, thinking. And just when you’re sure of what you’re reading, everything turns upside down, inside out, or right-side up.  

Diaz is a magician. We await more magic.

Zack Graham’s writing has appeared in Rolling StoneGQNewsday, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of an Emerging Critics Fellowship from the National Book Critics Circle, and is at work on a collection of short stories and a novel.