Review: This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Díaz
A new short story collection about breaking from the past and from each other.
This is how you lose her: you never acknowledge that you’re dating; you have sex with a coworker; you have sex with someone else, detailing the event in your easily discovered journal; you never contact her again; you photograph her sleeping naked; you have sex with dozens of someone elses, their emails festering in your trash bin; you turn her friends and relatives against you; you finally leave the city but sing out your remorse on her machine nightly, no longer expecting a response. Yunior, the DR-born, Jersey-raised writer doing the losing in eight out of the nine stories in Junot Díaz’s new short story collection, is an expert. And though Díaz is candid about Yunior’s complicity in his own romantic misfortunes, he uses the shuffled fragments his narrator’s experience to build an entire community of damaged women and compulsive men, where what hounds Yunior isn’t an isolated case of putada but the sweeping “momentum of the past,” an old, insidious malaise.
In TheBrief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Díaz materialized the malaise, called it fukú, and dashed between narrators and eras. In the half-decade since his one and only novel, in magazine interviews and NYU seminars (in which I enrolled), fukú has gone by the more academic designation of colonialism and its legacy of violence, sexual and otherwise. This is consistent with what’s most immediately noticed and discussed about his writing: the jouncing brow, the easy pivot between Spanish and English, the intermingling of scholarly Theory-ese and the lavishly profane. With the exception of the slower, lyrical voice of Yasmin (in “Otravida, Otravez”), a young woman working in a hospital’s laundry room, who reads “through the stains and marks they leave on the sheets…the alphabet of the sick and dying,” the rest of the narration is Yunior’s, and Yunior is a likeable guy, at least at first. His accounts proceed so smoothly, so conversationally, that it’s tempting to tread quickly along their surfaces, listening as you would in a bar to particularly eloquent friend who, it occurs to you, sometimes, vaguely, is kinda…pathological.
Take Nilda, of “Nilda,” for a short while Rafa’s girlfriend. Rafa, Yunior’s malignant older brother, “would sneak her down into our basement bedroom…and do her to whatever was on the radio right then,” with Yunior present. But even before that, fourteen-year-old Nilda had run away from her drunk mother and gone through several older boyfriends and a group home. The two begin to date after a school bus encounter in which Rafa “had his hand so far up her skirt it looked like he was performing a surgical procedure.” Yunior is half in love with Nilda himself, but of course nothing happens between them; Rafa moves on, then dies of cancer, and by the time Yunior runs into Nilda years later, she’s been ditched, beaten, and is missing teeth. Yunior’s remembrance of Nilda ends, sharply, with an “I don’t know where the fuck she went.” The rancor is sudden and bewildering. What inspires hate about a woman whose history is an almanac of woe? The curse, here and elsewhere, is an index, a place to get stuck and swing around, returning, and, if necessary, rereading.
“A lot of the things that happened to [Nilda] had nothing to do with me or my brother,” Yunior says, protesting too much. The moment echoes the opening claim of the book’s first story (“The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” the account of a relationship Yunior torpedoes by cheating): “I’m not a bad guy.” Like the fukú, Yunior’s conviction is long-lasting; in college, confronted with his journaled infidelities, he claims that “this is part of my novel,” and years after an adolescent affair with a local teacher, he searches for her with a photograph no one recognizes. It takes him, in the concluding story “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” the six years after his engagement disappears but love doesn’t, to begin to acknowledge the craters that patriarchy has left on the surface of his life. Díaz’s great accomplishment, made of the interstices between stories as much as of the text itself, is that the realization necessarily takes all those years and failures; it couldn’t have come sooner. Yasmin, whose lover still receives letters from his abandoned wife, says: “This is what I know: people’s hopes go on forever.” Within shifting contexts and languages, Díaz knots the ligaments we are convinced constitute us, the ties we tug tighter though they sit snugly on the throat. Most of these stories aren’t all he can give, and many will have already encountered several in the pages of the New Yorker, but while we wait for the next novel and our own slow-release epiphanies, Yunior’s catastrophes are worth reliving. “The world, you tell yourself, will never end.”
–Elina Mishuris is in a perpetual state of cat-sitting.
I ended up reading Junot Díaz' book This Is How You Lose Her because I heard about Díaz twice in the same day. First I heard his interview on Morning Edition on NPR. Díaz' conversation with Steve Inskeep caught my attention. Díaz says that he was never encouraged as a young boy by the culture around him to see women as fully human. At one point he asks Inskeep, "But look — bro, are you telling me that if I get all the women of the United States and gather them all together and say do you highly recommend American men, that you're going to get like a sterling recommendation? That these women are going to be like, 'Oh yes! American men are fantastic. These dudes have done so well by us'?"
That piqued my interest, because part of the push for writing the science fiction novel I just published was very similar to Díaz' motivation for writing This Is How You Lose Her. My book, Aetna Rising, comes out of the frustration that I have felt with the cultural thinking about guys in our society. It seems to be assumed that all guys value sexuality over relationship and commitment. As a Dad who highly values his marriage and children, I am tired of this point of view, but I know that there are guys out there who think this way. I also know that whatever I may value, biology has a say in attraction and that can lead guys to treat women poorly. I wanted to write a story about a guy figuring it out. I wanted a story which supported the choices for fidelity and commitment that most of the men who read this blog have made and continue to make.
The kicker was seeing on our sister blog Underwire that Díaz is working on a science fiction novel. It was at that point when I decided that I needed to read that book. I can't say it was an easy read but that is the case with most honest books. I can say it was totally worth it and made me think.
Addicts are always looking for the answer. It is the sacred quest to avoid pain which first leads an addict to their drug of choice. Addiction is the persistent delusion, despite growing evidence to the contrary, that the addict has found a sacred totem which allows them to transcend pain. Addicts are dreamers who will give everything, even their own lives, in pursuit of this Holy Grail.
What is more fascinating is that almost no addict questions the quest to outrun pain when they first enter recovery. Almost all addicts enter recovery because the veil of sacred awe surrounding their totem has been pierced and in a momentary glimpse of sanity they connect their current pain with their ongoing worship of their totem. For the sex addict, this revelation may come in the form of being caught cheating. For the drunk, it may be the DUI. In both cases outside forces break down the addict's defenses and cause them to connect the pain to the object of their addiction. Now the addict blames the object. In the early stages of recovery, addicts almost always attempt to shift their affections to a totem with less damaging side affects, perhaps recovery meetings themselves or a heroic therapist who seems to have the answers or possibly work or even exercise. They almost never question the quest for a pain-free life itself.
A highly significant moment of transition takes place in the addict's world when they come to see that their Manichean desire for a life of pure bliss may itself be the problem. All people must carry with them the scars and pains caused by their imperfections. For the addict this truth carries with it the shock of revelation.
I was reminded of these realities as I closed the back cover of Junot Díaz' This is How You Lose Her. Díaz' book loosely follows the journey of Yunior, a Dominican immigrant who comes to America as a boy. The book begins with Yunior cheating on a girl he cares for and getting caught. Yunior tries everything to keep her. Except for a small but intensely significant coda, the end of the book comes full circle, with Yunior repeating the cycle of destructive behavior. This time he gets caught cheating on his fiancée, the love of his life, with fifty women over a six year span.
Anyone familiar with addiction will see the madness in the repetition of Yunior. Addicts are so convinced that their totem is the answer for all their pain that they repeatedly fall into the same destructive behaviors, hurting themselves over and over in a cyclical pattern. What fills the pages in between these two episodes of acting out are a series of vignettes told mostly from Yunior's point of view. These vignettes both reveal the cyclical train wrecks of Yunior's choices and illustrate the influences which shaped him.
There are the usual suspects: a caustic father who is largely absent and tremendously destructive when present; the older teacher who offers sex to the teenage Yunior, stunting his emotional growth, while at the same time encouraging him to go to college; an older brother, a mother, and various flings and girlfriends have roles to play as well. Díaz doesn't forget the larger context either. As an American of Dominican decent himself, Díaz holds up Dominican male culture for scorn. But for this blanquito, there didn't seem to be all that much difference between Dominican male views of women and sexuality and the prevailing views of huge portions of mainstream American male culture. In my darkest moments I can relate all too well to Yunior's thinking.
In a culture in which pornography substitutes for relationship, and in which the hookup and shame-free casual sex are held up as ubiquitous male ideals, Díaz' book comes as a courageous breath of fresh air. For many men capable of honesty, the book will not be an easy read. It will be too personal, too familiar. The challenge for men laid out by Díaz is to take an unflinching look at the ways in which we see women, in particular sex with women, as a means by which we can escape pain. Are we on the quest for the grail or do we as men see pain, regrets, and suffering as an integrated part of human existence?
Without the short coda at the end of the book, Díaz' work would be merely the catalogue of an addict traveling from train wreck to train wreck, perhaps useful as a confessional but not instructive or helpful. It isn't until the very last paragraphs of the book that Yunior grapples with the necessary and vital turn in his thinking about women. It is only a few words before the close that Yunior, grappling with his loss writes on paper, The half-life of love is forever. And with those words Yunior rounds an important corner in his recovery, accepting pain and regret as part of his existence. In this way it is only at the end of This Is How You Lose Her that Yunior is ready to begin.
This Is How You Lose Her is published by Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Group USA.