Junot Diaz, This Is How You Lose Her, 2012.
Junot Diaz is back with a third book, his second collection of short stories, and yet this volume, like many other recent popular story collections is not simply an anthology of short works, but instead a cycle of linked stories about the women in Yunior’s life. As a novelist in the Dominican diaspora, Diaz’s Drown and then Pulitzer Prize-winning Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao are two recent popular works of Hispanic literary fiction. Unfortunately, although I deeply enjoy Diaz as a stylist whose bilingual conversational style reminds me so much of the time I spent in the Bronx, the collection is ultimately a disappointment.
First, there are nine stories, seven of which appeared in the New Yorker and other magazines which are still supportive of short fiction. It is not unlikely the other two were simply the latest available at the time of press, and so this does not feel like a new work by Diaz, but instead a reminder to the literary crowd that he is still producing new work, or perhaps a volume of convenience for those genuinely interested in contemporary literature but not invested enough to keep their eyes on the periodicals which support works in progress. I genuinely enjoyed the stories, some of them again for the second time, and I am certain that readers who are finding them for the first time are more pleased than I. Also, I suppose, like any short story writer, it is worth something to bind the short pieces for posterity, to have a hard copy on the shelves of libraries and stores in perpetuity. I think, perhaps, that I like this alternating story collection, novel sequence over the old model of an aspiring author slowly building a portfolio of short stories to be sold as part of a publishing deal that precedes their novels, the true goal, the important works for which the short stories serve as proof that the author can be productive and find an audience. Authors that seem only to do this, who toil only in short fiction, are marginalized because it seems like the real labor is in the novel, which never arrives, but Diaz and other recent story-cycle novelists (Jennifer Egan’s latest novel comes to mind) are successfully defying the story/novel dichotomy in a way which I think is more representative of the creative process of many great fiction writers. The short story may be dictated by the economic imperatives of frequent publication, in small pieces, which leaves the stories to become orphans on the larger book market. I can say, as much as I love the stories, I am now only reminded by Diaz’s gifts and anticipate even more the next novel, Monstro, which will hopefully arrive sooner than later.
Second, with that desire for a novel aside, I find the protagonist of Oscar Wao, the 2007 novel (already five years old?!), to be entirely too similar to the Yunior of this story arc. Both are highly articulate in a way that demonstrates deep reflective thought, wide reading of– in the case of both Oscar and Yunior– Shakespeare, Melville, and other literary standards that only a Dominican boy shut in with access to such literature, or attentiveness to great teaching in high school and college, would have been able to work into the narrator’s own voice. Like Oscar, Yunior is also deeply familiar with, even in nerd-like depth, with the science fiction and popular culture of American boyland, from the X-men to the nuclear fear films of the mid80s. Both protagonists are entirely too introspective, bookish, and geeky, in both the subculture and classroom senses, to have ever had the opportunity to touch as much female skin as the author would lead you to believe. If nothing, these young men are clearly standing in for Diaz’s own experience. They are his age, they share his heritage, the geography of Diaz’s own youth in Dominican neighborhoods of New Jersey with the occasional trip home to the D.R. And the sexual histories of these boys, prolific by any man’s standards, but allegedly (or stereotypically) exaggerated in the mixed-race Afro-Hispanic heritage of Caribbean men, is difficult to read as anything more than Diaz’s fantasy of an uncool schoolboy’s unrequited lust.
Finally, the thing most resonant is the deep loneliness that provokes the adultery of these men, Yunior, his brother Rafa, Yunior’s pal Elvis, their father. One story, about two Dominican women sharing an apartment while struggling to pay the bills and mentor other recent Dominican immigrant women is not explicitly about Yunior, does not mention him, his family, or his women in any connection way. At first glance, this story may be about his mother, or it may be about the universal experience of maltreatment of Dominican women by Dominican men. Anyway this story cycle is read, if I am not unfairly treating it too much as biographical fiction, Diaz underpins the desperate loneliness and exile experience of the male in the Dominican diaspora, always trying to find a connection through sex to the women of the Islands, trying to reduce the tension in their lives by trying to affirm their masculinity in sexual expression. The further temptations of blanquitas, negras, boricuas become irresistible, women and girls who offer pleasurable release from the struggle to just stay above water when jobs are scarce, wages low, and wives and children expensive.
It is something a little sad that three books into his career and I still prefer the first. Drown, published in 1996 is now sixteen years old, a remarkable distance between the two collections. Undoubtedly the sentence craft has improved, and his ability to keep the focus on the life of his protagonist Yunior– or his own experiences, frankly– at the center of the arc are impressive. Drown is more impressionist, more raw. Published when he was 28, those stories emerged in his mid20s as he penned them, sold them, and no doubt found extraordinary gratification in their popular reception. From 2003 to 2005, while teaching in the Bronx I was regularly aware that authors of Dominican heritage whose works were accessible to Domincan, black or Puerto Rican students were hard to come by. Julia Alvarez and Junot Diaz were about all that came to immediately to mind, with the Puerto Rican novelist Ernesto Quinones having recently published Bodega Dreams in 2000. These writers were regularly pushed on our students as suggested readings, and once in 2003 or 2004 my homeroom read Drown aloud in the short break between lunch and classes when we met for advisory. I will never forget the reactions to the stories by students who rarely read on their own for pleasure or grades, and when they did, were working there way through the long list of novelist which were not generated from the experiences of their own heritage. These young men and women needed, craved more stories from someone who shared their experiences but also wrote openly about emotions and sex.
When Oscar Wao came out, I was expectant– I was happy to dive right into his first novel, more than eleven years in gestation. I could not imagine where Diaz had gone, why he had not followed up the promise of Drown with something sooner. The novel was breathtaking, clever, humored but sad in much the same way as this collection of stories. I loved it, moved on, and largely forgot it. It won many prestigious prizes and Diaz appeared regularly on the literary circuit either on book tours or at events at big fests in 2008, 2009. Like many young writers of his generation, he has arrived, as they say. I do not expect this collection to garner a lot of prizes, although it will be respectfully praised in most literary circles. I think like myself, we are all actually hoping that he has found his rhythm, and we will not need to wait another eleven years for the next novel. Will this be the novel based on any of the premises which were Yunior’s false starts in This Is How You Lose Her? Will it be a novel of post-nuclear apocalypse, or will we continue to read about the frustrated loneliness that results from a promiscuous Dominican nerd? A third book with that protagonist would simply be two too many.