California Literary Review

Book Review: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

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September 12th, 2012 at 9:41 am

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Book jacket: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
This Is How You Lose Her
by Junot Diaz
Riverhead Hardcover, 224 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆


Calamities Without End

Admirers of Junot Diaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, might be initially disappointed by his new collection. This Is How You Lose Her, a new book of short stories, more closely resembles the author’s first book, Drown, than his much-lauded bildungsroman about the tragic and glorious eponymous character, Oscar. While Diaz’s in-progress book Monstro seems certain to scratch that Oscar itch for fans of the writer’s first novel, in the meantime, readers should enjoy the quiet pleasures of the author’s short fiction.

In This Is How You Lose Her, Diaz writes with subtlety and grace, once again demonstrating his remarkable facility for developing fully-realized and authentic characters with an economical rawness. Voiced almost entirely by the familiar narrator of Oscar Wao, this new collection takes the reader deeper into Yunior’s life, leading us on a journey of self-discovery, community, and family through a prism of serialized, failed monogamy.

This Is How You Lose Her is a collection of poignant vignettes chronicling what one chapter coyly calls “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” but it is also so much more. In Diaz’s book, romantic relationships are the point of origin and the final destination, the ciphers and the clues, for the nature of narrative itself. Diaz sticks close to the bone, so each of these nine pieces reads like a confessional. Through unrelentingly close and personal stories, Diaz explores how human connection informs our sense of identity, our places in history, and the way that we conceptualize home in a transnational and violent world. This Is How You Lose Her is an unassuming meditation on the formation of identities in a colonial context, the brittle resilience of families in the face of adversity, and the ubiquity of heartbreak in an age saturated with stories of love lost, found, and lost again.

The stories in this new collection follow Yunior as he grows from a less attractive younger brother and hopelessly nerdy son of Dominican parents into an athletic, womanizing teenager, and finally into an emotionally-challenged college professor. In this loosely structured diachronic study, of sorts, Yunior watches his father flail about in obvious adultery, cheating on his mother even after she arrives in the United States with their two small sons in tow. Later, growing up in a single parent household where his father is now conspicuously absent, he witnesses (literally) his brother having sex with every girl who will have him, even as he fights a losing battle with cancer. When Yunior is old enough to wear the mantel of infidelity himself, he cheats on his girlfriends with an inevitability that even he seems to find inexplicable. Womanizing is both part of what Yunior inherits from the male line of his family and, he suggests, just part of life—“casualties” in the battle to get by, to make one’s way, and maybe even to find oneself. Yunior comes to realize himself, to understand his identity and values and sense of home, through these failed relationships.

But Diaz uses these stories to make narrative gestures much broader than the confines of a single character would allow; thus, not all the failed romantic relationships are Yunior’s, not all the relationships are romantic, and Yunior doesn’t get to tell all the stories.

In “Otravida, Otravez,” the narrator, Yasmin, describes her life sorting sheets in a hospital laundry. As a veteran in this industry, Yasmin tries to ease the passage of the endless stream of newly arrived girls. She can’t help but identify with them in their struggles as they chase elusive dreams of prosperity and freedom. While considering herself lucky to have a job paying what she refers to as “American wages,” Yasmin spends her days reckoning with the evidence of a violence played out in the bodies of sick and wounded people in the hospital wards: “You’d think, given the blood we see, that there’s a great war going on out in the world.”

This war inside bodies is both literal in the image of the bloody sheets, too stained to salvage, and figurative in the book’s dominant theme of tortured relationships and unfaithful lovers. Thus the hazards Yasmin faces at her job are echoed in the emotional risks she takes in her relationship with a married man. Together, she and Ramon scrape out some space for themselves in a hostile world where lovers can be separated by money and time and the sea, sometimes forever. Ramon’s wife back home in the Dominican Republic writes letters to her husband that Yasmin intercepts and reads, and which make her ever watchful of the clock on her own relevance in Ramon’s life. Rather than blame him for his lack of coherent priorities, Yasmin awaits the inevitable with an awareness that in love, as in life, everything ends as certainly as the tides and as inevitably as death. Yasmin’s sense of fatefulness parallels Yunior’s in an obvious and poignant way, even as she sits on the opposite side of the cheater dynamic. Pregnant, at the end of the story, she waits patiently for her man to leave her.

Perhaps it’s fair to say that the big accomplishment of Diaz’s new book is that it does what authors have always done, but it does it really well. He explores grand concepts—pain, love, history, and life—through an obsessive devotion to particulars. The violence of colonial history replays itself in the troubled starts and stops of a family struggling for connection and in Yunior’s own search for love.

Diaz skillfully portrays his protagonist so vividly, and with so much apparent honesty, that Yunior’s voice comes across with an immediacy that never once feels inauthentic. This treatment, and our broader sense of history, preserves Yunior’s ethos even as he confesses at length to pathological infidelity and general bad behavior. After his fiancée breaks up with him, Yunior describes his ensuing mental state with the language of trauma: “[E]ach passing week the depression darkens. You try to describe it. Like someone flew a plane into your soul. Like someone flew two planes into your soul.” Such analogies highlight the violence of contemporary life. As a child, newly arrived from the Dominican Republic, Yunior describes the persecution he and his brother experienced at the hands of two white neighborhood children. Later, Yunior is routinely screamed at by random white people while sitting at traffic stops; the anger of these strangers would seem inexplicable, if not for its predictability. The violence of everyday life, which repeats itself with the inevitability of history, finds a parallel in Yunior’s serially failed monogamy. Yunior implicitly points at this tendency when he comments, “As soon as you start thinking about the beginning, it’s the end.”

  • Toba Singer

    This is a vivid capture of Diaz’s vignettes. I find that I am disappointed with the “can’t go home” stories by authors who do in fact go home for their material. An atavistic pull seems to vaporize any and all other story lines, but Wick’s review offers the clue to why this happens with authors such as Diaz and Zadie Smith, the ghetto or near-ghetto or barrio or near-barrio young talent that the academy has attempted to “whiten” or at least bourgeoisify, succeeding just enough to suspend them in a horrible soul-crushing limbo. This limbo lives in such lines as “As soon as you start thinking about the beginning it’s the end” and “someone flew two planes into your soul.” Both authors describe that lonely place by giving acute personal testimony. The clue seems to be in the word “inevitable.” In their worlds, there is nothing or anyone left standing to be faithful to because you keep dropping your anchor into sands upset by the prevailing undertow of class and racial oppression. I hope that these writers, whose fingers transmit authentic pulses to their keyboards, will find their way far enough out of their miasmas to open a new chapter in their writing careers, anchored in the confidence that they can cast a cold eye in the direction of the bigger world that created the hell they have lived and truthfully deliver stories that may include, but also go beyond what they have personally survived.

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