‘Diaz is a serious talent’ – This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

Given Diaz’s immense reputation, it’s hard to believe that this is only his third book; following 1996’s story collection, Drown, and 2007’s Pulitzer-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the Dominican-born writer’s latest collection, This Is How You Lose Her is, predictably, another melancholy and funny tour de force.  

The new book comprises nine stories, most of which are voiced by Diaz’s usual narrator, Yunior, and feature the writer’s now-distinctive idiom, a sparky and defiant mix of Spanish and English that Diaz consistently, and rightly, refuses to gloss, so that, unlike Drown, which includes a brief glossary, How You Lose Her creates a genuinely bilingual space for its Dominican-American cast. The effect isn’t so much exclusionary as exhilarating – we’re drawn into Yunior’s world at precisely the moment at which we’re shown its difference, but all along it’s hilarious: 

‘Dude was figureando hard. Had always been a papi tulo so of course he dove right back into the grip of his old sucias, snuck them down  into the basement whether my mother was home or not.’

This is being billed as a book of love-stories, and to the extent that most of the tales do feature love affairs, that’s apt. Since we met him in Drown, the sex-obsessed, morally questionable Yunior has grown older, if not wiser; the stories here are tales of failed, ruined, sabotaged and unlikely love-affairs – the title of the collection, This Is How You Lose Her, isn’t lying. We track Yunior from teenage ineffectuality, stuck in the shadow of his intimidatingly successful big brother, Rafa –

‘Save my seat, she said over her shoulder, and I was like, Don’t worry about it. Before we even swung onto 516 Nilda was in my brother’s lap and he had his hand so far up her skirt it looked like he was performing a surgical procedure.’

– through to his years as a fully-fledged love rat. The opening story, ‘The Sun, the Moon, the Stars’, is an account of Yunior’s unhappy attempts to win back a girl he cheated on: ‘She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole.’ In the final story, ‘The Cheaters Guide to Love’, his fiancé also catches him red-handed:

‘She could have caught you with one sucia, she could have caught you with two, but as you’re a totally batshit cuero who didn’t ever empty his email trash-can, she caught you with fifty!’

The woman in his life are by turns victims and leaders: girls like Magda, Alma, Paloma and the final fiancé don’t let men like Yunior revel in their exploits; Yunior isn’t worthy of them, and he knows it.

Diaz plays on his own biography (immigrant, writer, academic) which gives the tales a sense of veracity that’s probably entirely fallacious – or, in any case, redundant – but that nonetheless lends the book an air of authenticity that’s intriguing for his European readers. The other main theme in the book is immigration – the Domincan/American dialectic that’s shaped Yunior’s life and those of his family and friends. We see the casual racism of Boston college life, the barrios and exclusive resorts of the DR, the poor migrant neighbourhoods of Yunior/Diaz’s youth in New Jersey. The only story with a different narrator, ‘Otravida, Otravez’, tells of a woman who intercepts letters from her married lover’s wife back in Santa Domingo, while her friend, working in the USA to earn money for her family, hasn’t seen her children in seven years. In ‘The Cheater’s Guide’, Yunior’s friend, Elvis, is sending money home to a woman who claims to have borne his baby, but is in fact (spoiler!) manipulating the successful migrant for his cash. ‘Invierno’ is the only story not to feature a love-affair; this is the story of how Yunior and his brother and mother came to join his father in the United States – it’s a terribly sad family portrait of patriarchy, the language barrier and loneliness, made beautiful by Diaz’s skill:

‘We went down to the edge of the apartments and looked down over the landfill, a misshapen, shadowy mound that abutted the Raritan. Rubbish fires burned all over it like sores and the dump trucks and bulldozers slept quietly and reverently at its base.’   

Any Cop?: Diaz is a serious talent. If you liked his other two books, you’ll love this. It’s tender and joyful and bleak all at the same time, and there’s glimpses of the geeky Diaz that you’ll remember from Oscar Wao. And if you haven’t tried him yet, this is an excellent place to start.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

 

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