Please accept my apologies for my month-long absence on Book’s End, I’ve been very busy with school-related things and less school-related things. Like being on the radio for the first time—that was exciting. Also reviewing Ian McEwan’s new novel Sweet Tooth for The Millions and interviewing one of my favourite writers, Rawi Hage, who was in Vancouver last month for the Writers Fest. Speaking of the Writers Fest, that’s when I also got to see Junot Díaz, who barely needs an introduction. Here it is anyway: Díaz is the author of the acclaimed short story collection Drown, the pulitzer-prize bestseller The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and, more recently, the National Book Award-nominated This Is How You Lose Her, and he was also awarded a MacArthur “genius” fellowship last month.
At his event at the Vancouver Writers Fest, I was also pleased to find out that Díaz is an amazing public speaker. Homeboy has the swagger of a rock star (see what I did there?). Instead of taking the usual format of a seated interview with glasses of water and quiet reflection about the writing process, Díaz gave the audience a show. He stood on his own for an hour and a half, read from his new book with extreme emphasis, called out to his compadres from the Dominican Republic or New Jersey, and answered questions from the audience without a moderator. I have never seen an author with so much verve, ease, and generosity on stage.
And now about this new book, This Is How You Lose Her, a collection of short stories largely narrated or about Díaz’s fictitious alter-ego Yunior, and therefore largely about Yunior’s incapacity to be a faithful boyfriend, and the consequences of his serial cheating on his life. At least, that’s what the book purports to be about, sort of, and that’s certainly what Francine Prose got out of it for her review in The New York Review of Books. Prose’s feeling is that most of the stories in this collection follow the same narrative arc—boy falls in love with girl, boy can’t help cheating on girl, girl learns about boy’s infidelity, boy tries to save relationship, boy loses girl—and can’t help but eventually repeat themselves in their language as well. This last conclusion is especially troubling because the magic of Díaz’s fiction lies in his language: the exciting, crackling, hilarious, rapidly paced prose, infused with spanish, slang, and references to anything from Melville to the X-Men.
Luckily, I disagree with Prose. The stories in This Is How You Lose Her that are directly about cheating are fewer and farther between that you would think, and they’re still amazing. Their language remains absolutely brilliant, and they serve as a kind of accumulation of examples to help understand Yunior as a character, as well as his chronology. And there are many stories in this book, even some narrated by or about Yunior, who aren’t about cheating at all. They only use cheating as an entry point, a thematic link to the other stories in the collection. I’m thinking of Invierno, which recounts the first few months of Yunior’s time in the US as a child when he was stranded indoors in the middle of winter, or The Pura Principle, about the falling apart of Yunior’s family when his brother Rafa falls ill, or Miss Lora, in which Yunior falls in love with an older woman for whom he becomes both lover and surrogate son. Díaz’s best stories are about displacement and loneliness.
One of Díaz’s greatest achievements in This Is How You Lose Her is a story called “Otravida, Otravez,” a deceptively simple story narrated by a 26 year old Dominican woman called Yasmin who has lived in the US for severals years. She works in the laundry room of a hospital, where she has to deal with younger, new arrived Dominican girls who have trouble adjusting to their new lives. Yasmin’s boyfriend, Ramón, works in a bread factory and has been serious enough about his jobs and his life to collect enough money to buy a house. But Ramón left a wife back in the Dominican Republic, a wife who sends him letters that Yasmin reads in secret because she is afraid that Ramón will go back to her. “Otravida, Otravez” is a beautiful story, with rich, complex characters and a narrative voice that is absolutely believable. By entering the mind of a young woman, hardened by experience and sadness, Díaz reveals the breadth of this talent, and also the multi-faceted nature of his project to portray the immigrant reality.
These stories are modern, sharp, with contemporary language and literary devices that lean sometimes, only sometimes, a little too heavily on the showy: first person present tense or second person narratives… These things can be dangerous in excess, and Díaz employs them again and again. They remain mostly effective and, even, usually not too noticeable, because the author demonstrates so much compassion for his characters. The care comes through and the community on the page comes to life. It makes sense because that’s what these stories are really about: how to keep on living when everything—even your own self—seems to be working against you.