Honestly Deep Diaz Delivers
Published: Sunday, September 30, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
This Is How You Lose Her, the new short story collection by Junot Diaz, can be read rapidly. With its snappy, slangy, streetwise prose and hilarious zingers, this is a book that compels gleeful page-turning. But beyond the collection’s energetic style and bawdy humor lies a sadder book, one that delves into painful, emotional territory. Most of the stories are about relationships falling apart because of cheating and dishonesty, and they also touch on themes of immigration, parenthood, and the emotional effects of terminal illness. These are all heavy topics, to be sure, but Diaz handles them with a deft touch. The result is a book that is immediately accessible and entertaining, but which lingers in the mind with a powerful impression of melancholy.
Diaz’s talent for mixing disparate tones, styles, and themes has been celebrated by admirers of his two previous works, the short story collection Drown and the Pulitzer-Prize winning 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The new collection brings back a recurring character from both books: Yunior, a Dominican immigrant who grows up in a poor section of New York and struggles during his teenage and early adult years with drugs and unstable relationships before eventually going to college and making it as a writer. Yunior shares many biographical details with Diaz, and it’s not a big stretch to see the character as the author’s alter ego—but you don’t have to make that connection, or be familiar with Diaz’s previous writings, to become immediately wrapped up here.
The opening story, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” is written in first person from Yunior’s perspective. He opens with the defensive statement “I’m not a bad guy” before explaining his current romantic predicament: His girlfriend Magdalena has discovered that he cheated on her with “this chick who had tons of eighties free-style hair,” and as a result their relationship is on the rocks. The opening paragraph alone reveals how feckless and immature Yunior is, and much of the book is devoted to exploring the ramifications of his character—for this is only the first story of many about Yunior’s infidelities. Like much of the book, the story is by turns sarcastically witty and painfully sad, and it ends with a perfectly succinct moment of emotional honesty in which Yunior tries to mend a relationship that’s far past saving.
This first story is characteristic of the collection’s themes and tone, but Diaz manages to keep things fresh with shifts in style. A few stories are written entirely in the second person, with Yunior addressing himself. One of these is “Alma,” the shortest story in the book and one of the best. The story features some of Diaz’s funniest, most outrageous lines (most of which are unprintable here due to a proliferation of four-letter words), but the second-person address helps carry a tone of self-loathing and regret that penetrates to the story’s darker core. “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” which concludes the book, uses second person to similar ends but in a more extended format, with Yunior detailing the year-by-year process of trying to get over his ex-fiance before determining that perhaps he never will, for “the half-life of love is forever.”
This Is How You Lose Her is about a lot more than one man’s repeated infidelities, though. One of the most affecting stories is “Invierno,” a sensitive account of Yunior’s family assimilating to American life during their first winter in New York. Full of vivid sensory details and an acute sense of social milieu, the story also offers keenly and lovingly sketched character portraits of Yunior’s mother (“Mami”) and brother Rafa, who appear repeatedly in the book—most notably in “The Pura Principle,” a moving story about Rafa’s unusual response to a deadly cancer diagnosis.
This Is How You Lose Her is a unique beast among short story collections, with themes, characters, and plot threads resonating across the stories even as each story stands on its own. For those readers with schedules too busy to accommodate lengthy novels, it offers an appealing middle ground, and a chance to become acquainted with one of the liveliest, most acclaimed authors of the past decade.