After missing Junot Diaz’s performance at Book Court in Brooklyn on Tuesday, I consoled myself by reflecting on his new short story collection. Before I cracked the spine, the odds were long that Diaz could meet the high standard of his debut collection Drown, or his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or his recent MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, which even super fans conceded was belated and perhaps gratuitous. And after being inspired by Drown to study fiction writing in graduate school, teaching the book for years to high school and college students in literature and creative writing classes, and raving about Diaz to anyone who would listen, the new book felt like a referendum on my credibility as a writer, teacher, and human being. I hesitated for several weeks before buying the book, rationalizing that if I didn’t read it, I wouldn’t be disappointed. Fortunately, Diaz delivered. Like its predecessors, This is How You Lose Her is technically dazzling, culturally challenging, and emotionally devastating. Line by line, page by page, story by story, it is a book that breaks and mends your heart.
One of the pleasures of reading Diaz is how much he mines from ostensibly so little material. Drown reads like fictionalized autobiography –the artist as a young man in the Dominican Republic and New Jersey— but minus the self-importance, flashiness, and saccharine tang that plagues so many debut novels and memoirs. Oscar Wao has more characters, plots, politics, and history but explores the same types of dysfunctional relationships among family members, friends, lovers, countries, and cultures. And the scope of This is How You Lose Her is even narrower. In eight of the nine stories, a Dominican man cheats on his girlfriend or fiancé or wife. In case you missed the point, the final story is called “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” and begins: “Your girl catches you cheating.” Perhaps the only less subtle move would have been to title the book The Penis Monologues.
This is How You Lose Her also revisits characters from Drown, namely the author’s alter ego Yunior, his philandering Papi, his stoic Mami, and his hermano Rafa, who remains a sucio, albeit a sympathetic one, until his untimely death. Finally, violating a tacit rule that writers are allowed only one story (or book) with a second person narrator, two of the nine stories in This is How You Lose Her use this technique. In “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” Diaz even recycles the satirical instruction manual conceit he used in “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie),” one of Drown’s most scathing and heartbreaking stories.
While such repetition would suggest laziness or lack of imagination in lesser hands, for Diaz it seems to be a path to enlightenment, the literary equivalent of a mantra. Diaz seems to have found his Great Subject, and has both the sense to stick with it and the ability to avoid predictability, staleness, or self-parody. Despite the superficial similarities among the stories in This Is How You Lose Her, they are not redundant, but variations on a theme, not unlike the five stories in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes or the entire oeuvres of Haruki Murakami, Philip Roth, Roberto Bolano, Toni Morrison, and others who have essentially written one story their entire careers. No hay que complicar las cosas.
Unlike those writers, however, Diaz does not place a premium on being prolific. He has written only three books in 16 years, including the now notorious 11 years between Drown and Oscar Wao(In that same span, J.K. Rowling published all seven volumes of the Harry Potter series). And This is How You Lose Her is not exactly a new book. The first story, “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars” first appeared in The New Yorker in 1998, in the critical afterglow of Drown but a decade before Diaz became a household name. In one interview, Diaz said he writes between 40 to 50 drafts of short stories. In “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” Yunior drafts and abandons several novels before settling on the one that feels right. And at Book Court on Tuesday, Diaz said: “Deep down in your heart if you’re serious about being artists, it doesn’t matter if the work comes early or late.” Throughout, his message is consistent. Take your time. Get it right.
Perhaps due to such patience, the passage of time, and Diaz’s immense capacity for introspection—Drown and This is How You Lose Her are fundamentally different books, despite their superficial similarities. The former was young man’s take on immigrant kids and teenagers traumatized by poverty, family dysfunction, and cultural clashes. The latter is a middle aged man’s take on those same kids both in childhood and as Americanized adults, with all the problems of adulthood.
These problems often center on a battle of the sexes with familiar gender roles: The cheating men want sexual freedom and emotional detachment and the faithful women want monogamy and intimacy. Yet, Diaz often flips the script. Sometimes the men want intimacy. Sometimes women want sexual independence, even if it means being labeled a slut. And if the female characters are often aggrieved, they never come across as victims; if anything they seem to possess a maturity and depth of insight that Yunior and his compadres lack. And their names –Alma (soul) and Pura (pure) – only reinforce their status. And while the female characters condemn their philandering partners, they often give them another chance –though not an infinite number of chances. This is, after all, a book that’s fixed on loss.
Another joy of reading Diaz is how he breaks down linguistic boundaries. In his diction, he’s not afraid to drop the n-word or the phrase “curried pussy” or use words like “pelagic” and “fulgurating” (also used in Oscar Wao) that might send even educated readers to the dictionary. In his cultural references, he name checks everyone from comic book artist Frank Frazetta to Herman Melville, using “Bartleby” as a verb to describe how a woman would “prefer not to” spend time with her cheating boyfriend. As always, he switches seamlessly between languages: Three of the nine stories have Spanish titles and in a typically bilingual passage, Yunior laments:
This is the endgame, and instead of pulling out all the stops, instead of pongandome mas chivo que un chivo, I’m feeling sorry for myself, como un pariguayo, sin suerte. I’m thinking over and over, I’m not a bad guy, I’m not a bad guy.
Diaz doesn’t translate or even italicize the Spanish, suggesting the fluidity between the two languages in the narrator’s mind. Similarly, he doesn’t put his dialogue in quotation marks, implying a fluid relationship between thought, words, and action, and, since the stories are recollections, the imprecision of memory.
As a whole, This is How You Lose Her reads like a quest for spiritual and emotional cleansing. Fragile, scarred, and insecure, the characters drown in sex, drugs, and guilt to cope with trauma and stave off the possibility of intimacy, which would leave them vulnerable to more pain. Ironically and inevitably, their quick fixes make their lives worse until they bottom out, then reach some kind of peace or clarity. It’s not a stretch to see their quest as Freudian. In both Drown and This is How You Lose Her, Yunior grows up in the shadow of his philandering father and promiscuous brother. In the stories about his youth, Yunior both hates and worships his father and his brother, swearing never to become like them even as he emulates them to gain their attention and approval. In the stories about his adulthood, he is just as much of a skirt chaser, with the added burden of guilt. “Both your father and your brother were sucios…You had hoped the gene missed you, skipped a generation, but clearly you were kidding yourself. The blood always shows.” With all the inevitability of an Old Testament story or a Greek Tragedy, the sins of the father survive in the son. In “Invierno,” Yunior says: “A father is a hard thing to compass” and the implication is clear. His ghost isn’t going anywhere soon.
In two of the new stories, women discover their boyfriends’ infidelities by reading their journals. It’s an apt symbol for what it feels like to read This is How You Lose Her –and Diaz’s prior work. You know it’s fiction, but can’t escape the feeling that you’re spying on someone’s most secret, private, and embarrassing thoughts –or hearing his confession. In this way, for all their flaws and bad behavior and moral waywardness, Diaz’s characters are always sympathetic, always human.
While This is How You Lose Her will surely advance Diaz’s literary career, it may complicate his love life. For the reader, the collection raises the obvious question of what you would do if your lover cheated on you, and implies two no less challenging questions: How do you find love and how do you make it last?
Keith Meatto is Editor in Chief of Frontier Psychiatrist. His essay on the new wave of Indian fiction recently appeared in The Millions. He still has his original copy of “Nilda” torn from the October 4, 1999 issue of The New Yorker. En serio.