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

“Nilda was my brother’s girlfriend. This is how all these stories begin.” Those are the opening lines of “Nilda,” the most beautiful and hauntingly sad of the nine short stories included in This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Díaz’s latest volume—the second such collection and the third published book by the author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Which stories, exactly, the narrator in “Nilda” is referring to remains purposely obscure—is it all stories of frustrated love, of teenage infatuation, of irrepressibly sexual underprivileged girls who live their lives at the speed of light and are inevitably doomed to crash and burn like a bullet train hitting a concrete wall? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just these stories, the nine tales that constitute This Is How You Lose Her, which on first inspection are not all about the narrator’s brother or his girlfriends but which clearly share a single—enduring, recurrent—essence.

Díaz remains faithful to the characters and the context that famously earned him so much credit with his first collection of short stories, Drown, and that eventually would also generate financial stability when he scooped the Pulitzer Prize with Oscar Wao: Yunior is still Junot’s predominant narrator, and the less-than-rosy world of Dominican immigrants in the ’hoods of New Jersey is still the setting in which these stories take place. That’s not where the similarities between Díaz’s previous work end, but what becomes striking right from the start is rather the differences we find. Subtle differences—shades of the same color—but differences still.

Junot Díaz. Photo: MIT

The most significant of them can most aptly be described as attitudinal: Yunior’s puerile infatuation with (largely but not exclusively sexual) adventure has been displaced by a dignifying sense of—if not pathos, at least—contemplation. Chronologically, the collection spans from the early days of Yunior’s arrival in New Jersey, when he and his brother Rafa were still just little kids and his sucio father would take them on his “pussy calls” (but “a father is a hard thing to compass,” Yunior concedes), to a few years after Rafa’s death, when Yunior is still caught in serious (and serial) heartbreak, despite straightening out his life in many other respects, having graduated from university and taken his first steps as a writer. It is the tone, though, with which these anecdotes from different periods of Yunior’s and other immigrants’ lives are recounted, which rings less brazen, more contained, not so much boastful as resigned, and which consequently generates a completely different reaction in the reader.

Which is not to say that the characters in This Is How You Lose Her are more righteous, or less prone to catastrophes than their predecessors. Not Yunior, the incorrigible sucio, not Rafa, who even seen through the eyes of terminal cancer is still described as the quintessential bully, not even Yasmin, the docile—tamed—narrator of “Otravida, otravez” (a careful portrait of the life and moderate expectations of even the most hard-working, relinquishing immigrants), who in her quest for a new life ends up involved with a married man and resigns herself to the knowledge that something cataclysmic is bound to happen.

Ingenious, engaging and electrifying as Junot’s prose is, it will come as no surprise that the best part of his narrative here is—like in his previous work—not so much was is said but rather what is articulated without words. Like all silences, Junot’s can be ascribed myriad, perhaps infinite, interpretations but I want to put forward two aspects that resonate in particular during these tense times of thoughtlessly populistic policy-making in the Dominican Republic.

The first of these is the hopelessly fragile, vulnerable existence led by migrants in a foreign country. Forced by circumstance to try something new, the characters in This Is How You Lose Her not only have to face the perils of poverty and alienation, exploitation and unfamiliar climactic conditions, they also have to learn to exist with the threat, the constant danger, of having everything—the little—they have achieved taken away from them in a land that offers no protection, in a place where they are ultimately, profoundly, alone. This is manifestly palpable in Díaz’s fiction, which recreates the universe of Domincan exiles in the United States, but it is equally relevant within the context of the Haitian diaspora and its offspring, not least, of course, in the neighboring Dominican Republic, where the political will of the few has turned the country’s legal machinery against thousands upon thousands of innocent people who all of a sudden find themselves homeless, helpless, stateless.

But a school of thought says that challenges are there to be overcome, and no matter how fettered by reality Díaz’s subject matter is, his prose, his books, his message always remains uplifting. That’s part of the second unarticulated aspect I want to highlight in This Is How You Lose Her: through all the vicissitudes—and they’re varied and plentiful—that life throws at Yunior and co in this collection, through sixteen-hour shifts and statutory rape, through all the longings and frustrations that give these stories their shape, there is one and only one factor that no character, not even Rafa, can run away from: life goes on.

In this respect, Yunior’s stories all start with Rafa’s girlfriends because Rafa was the prettiest most irresistible badass there was not only in Yunior’s life but in his whole galaxy. And though for Rafa life doesn’t go on (it does, until the very end, when it doesn’t anymore), for everyone around him it does. Except Rafa is the kind of person whose absence is felt as vividly, as intensely, as his presence. For Yunior, Rafa is the geographical coordinate that localizes him, that grounds him to his rightful place—then comes the rest: his father’s abuse, his mother’s struggles, his incontrollable sexual curiosity, his infidelities, the obstinacy of women, the terrorist status of Boston winters, heartbreak, depression, reconciliation, crisis. Life.

Fittingly, Yunior is able to channel the crises in his life into some sort of force that allows him to carry on—and that already is to overcome. That force is creative as well as boundless, as evidenced in the shortest of these stories, “Alma,” which takes its name from Yunior’s irresistible Dominican girlfriend who finds out he’s cheating on her with Laxmi, because she reads his journal. “Baby, you say, baby, this is part of my novel,” says Yunior, despite the sadness that overcomes him at the knowledge that she will never forgive him. “This is how you lose her,” closes, sententiously, the story. Yunior loses the ideal girlfriend, which is also the object of Junot’s literary creation, through the ramblings of his imagination, put in writing in his journal. But years later, when Yunior loses not the ideal girlfriend but actually the love of his life (he thinks), he only manages to come out of a reeling loop of self-destruction through the power of the emails and letters he has himself written to all the women with whom he has had affairs during his relationship—collected and bound in a single volume by his ex-girlfriend in a final gesture of hatred before breaking up with him.

Yunior, and by extension Junot, are fed by the power of the word—a force that is so strong it can wreck, invent and save lives. We might not all have the keys to access that source but we all need something to help us keep going through our days, and the fruit of Junot Díaz’s experiments with words are as reinvigorating a balm as there is out there.

 

 

Published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday July 11 2015.

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