This is how you lose her by Junot Diaz (Faber and Faber - September, 2012)
Philip Roth—in a wonderful, free-spirited essay collected in his Shop Talk—says of his mentor Saul Bellow that he was “Columbus for people like me, the grandchildren of immigrants, who set out as American writers after him.” It’s a bracing pronouncement, one that, the reader senses, is a kind of even-when-lobotomised no-brainer for
Roth: so hard-wired into the fundamentals of his system that he can’t help but admit to it. Bellow—we know—is the towering figure of post-war American Literature: a writer as much indebted to the weird and violent manifoldness of his time as he was committed to returning a sense of Dickensian heft and well-being to a literature, he felt, lacked bite. It’s right there in his bibliography, this reaching-towards: from the slim prose of the early novels to the weird, engulfing idiosyncrasies of a book like The Adventures of Augie March and its many unflappable enthusiasms: something happened to Bellow. Some switch flipped so he could commit his ‘roid rage to print, make it legible for 400-plus pages. He later observed that “there is something delirious about the writing” of March. “It overran its borders.”
In contemporary literature, one senses this border-obliteration nowhere more than in the work of Junot Diaz, the Dominican-American writer whose new collection of stories—the accurately-titled This is How You Lose Her—is another instalment into what currently looks like an Important Body of Work. Diaz shares more than a few tropes with Bellow—his hybrid way with language, an outsider’s sense of the world’s injustice—even the title of his Pultizer winning first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is an obvious callback to Bellow’s superabundant “big thing.” And like Augie March—where Augie, despite being the protagonist, is for long sections the mopey cipher for everything that’s more interesting around him—Diaz uses Oscar as a through-line to explore way bigger, more universal themes: family, race, partisanship, love. There are footnotes. At one point a character broods over the racial differences between orcs and elves.
This is How You Lose Her is a smaller book: more refined, it lacks the gross sweep of the earlier work. One story, “Otravida, Otravez,” which was first published in The New Yorker in 1999, highlights the leaps and bounds that Diaz has since made in his writing. About an immigrant working in a hospital laundry, it’s a precise, affecting piece of work, consistently bleak and absolutely hardball at transmitting the sheer sense of loneliness that menial work entails. It’s a difficult read, written in a prose that’s noticeably flatter. Although—this being Diaz—the highly individual detail is already there (when one character sits on a mattress, “the fat spread of his ass [pops] my fitted sheets from their corners”), as well as an acute, almost aggressive empathy for the suffering of others. What really feels different, though, about “Otravida, Otravez” is its comparative lack of playfulness, the way in which, even when embroiled in Oscar Wao’s most dire moments Diaz could bring out an elevating sentence, such as when a despot is characterised as “one of those tall, arrogant, acerbically handsome niggers that most of the planet feels inferior to. Also one of those very bad men that not even postmodernism can explain away.” Not exactly laugh-out-loud, OK, but the tone is there all the same: louche, slightly irreverent, and highly articulate.
The ultimate conduit, it turns out, for this fresh style is Diaz’s creation of Yunior. This is the guy who narrated the entirety of Oscar Wao—switching modes to adopt the voice of his sister and mother for some of the best sections in the book—and Diaz gifts him eight of the nine stories in This is How Your Lose Her. At first pass, this might seem repetitious: the same trick, over and over again; and it’s true—there is a lot for fans to fall in love with here: the familiar charms of Yunior’s voice, its mix of high culture / slang, the ease with which it shifts imperceptibly between registers. But—and this isn’t only a function of the book being shorter and more wound-up than Wao—there is a new focus and tension here. Every one of the nine stories here centres on a failing relationship. “The Cheater’s Guide to Love”—told in the second person—is particularly harrowing on this count. Starting with the declamatory sentence, “Your girl finds out that you are cheating,” it moves through stages of humour (“Well, actually she’s your fiancée, but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter”) and denial—a side-line in fucking around—until our narrator can’t take it anymore and the reader is doled over thirty pages of the most entertaining, unleavened remorse. Or—to paraphrase Yunior—a whole lot of “exorcising shit.” It’s a fantastic, hugely compassionate piece of work—seemingly undiluted, it could come straight out of Diaz’s personal experience (and probably does—when his first collection Drown was published, Diaz signed on to write a novel called The Cheater’s Guide to Love). Like the rest of the stories narrated by Yunior—“Nilda,” “Alma,” “Flaca,” and “Miss Lora” extends Diaz’s strong run of describing believable female characters, whereas “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” is about two lovers, at each other’s throats, going on holiday together—there is real pathos and honesty here: an acknowledgement that the suffering, to a certain extent, is deserved.
“I’m not a bad guy,” Yunior says on the first line of the first page here. By the end of This is How You Lose Her’s breakup narratives, you can’t help but feel he’s kind of good.