At first, you weren’t sure how to feel about Junot Díaz’s latest book of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her (Riverhead, 224 pp., $26.95). You think this might have had something to do with his use of the second person.
When you set the book down, your first instinct was to say it’s very different from his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but the more you thought about it, the more you realized that there are quite a few similarities. There are the multiple vignettes feeding into the same essential story line, the nerd patois that peppers the text with references to geek pop culture, the second person and, obviously, the heartbreak. So why doesn’t it feel similar?
You think it might be the scope. This book is about Yunior, Mr. Díaz’s fictional alter ego, who in Lose Her watches his brother Rafa die from cancer, sleeps around, remembers the first time he ever saw snow. He works on a science fiction book set in the 1980s. You have to be honest: you were never that enthusiastic about Yunior. You always found him to be a bit of a cipher—assuming he’s the same Yunior from Oscar Wao and Mr. Díaz’s first book of stories, Drown (and you have no reason to think otherwise, since they’d all still be ciphers, even if they were separate characters). Only one story isn’t about him, the one about a hardworking laundrywoman who does her best not to think about her lover’s family back in Santo Domingo as she and the lover look at houses together in New Jersey. When you got to that one, you couldn’t help but remember how big Wao was. Wao was about the Dominican Republic, the whole country and everyone in it. Like Lose Her, it jumped around in time, but the arc and the large and varied cast of narrators led to a feeling of epic scale. When he compared Rafael Trujillo to Sauron, or Galactus from the Fantastic Four, you believed it.
Staying with Yunior’s voice, and only Yunior’s voice, can feel a bit claustrophobic, but at least that nerd-speak is back. A dry spell in his sex life isn’t just a dry spell, it’s “fucking Arrakeen.” You’ve always liked this, not only because it engages you—the you who read Grant Morrison’s writing stint on JLA in the individual issues—but also because it signals that he is reporting from a very personal place. Look, he was saying about Trujillo, that guy was so bad that nobody will ever be able to understand his reign objectively, so why bother? Have some extreme subjectivity, and humor. You think that’s part of the joke in using the second person, too, because it’s obviously not “you” you. One story in this new book even begins “you, Yunior.” But the rambling personal style is a lens best focused on something big. His short story in The New Yorker’s recent sci-fi issue, which is apparently part of a science fiction novel he’s been trying to finish, could have been subtitled, “Stuck in the ‘Friend Zone’ at the End of the World.” You thought it was hectic, funny, tragic and brilliant.
Here’s how Mr. Díaz’s style has changed for this book, and your opinion of how effectively it was used: it’s too sparse, and he chose the wrong topic. Drown was written in a style that was a little too straightforward, pretty much just “this happened” then “this happened,” albeit in tight stories, but he developed that tone further in the laid-back Wao. It rambled, in a good way. Here, it’s much the same, but pared-down in the Raymond Carver/Ernest Hemingway mode of stoic tragedy. One story ends: “We never spoke again. A couple of years later I went away to college and I don’t know where the fuck she went.” In the final story, Yunior admits he cheated on his fiancée with 50 women, and that’s just the starting point. The rest of the story ticks off the years after their breakup like the days after the apocalypse.
The stiff upper lip means a shortage of sex scenes. Mr. Díaz has described his style as a mix of “English, Spanish and nerdish,” and if he ever wanted to add a fourth inflection, you’d nominate “pornish.” What’s there, sex-wise, is perfunctory—it was good, it was bad, we held each other. Here’s about as dirty as it gets, in a scene with Ms. Lora, a high school teacher with whom Yunior had a liaison when he was 16 (line breaks included): “Do you have a condom?/ You are a worrier like that./ Nope, she says and you try to keep control but you come in her anyway./ I’m really sorry, you say.” See how it’s about him, but not at all about sex? This fits with the general sparseness, and yet you wonder if he might not have benefited from a few more dirty details. You mean, 50 women! There had to be some stories there. He has a big topic for his prose lens—this weird, hulking infidelity—but you never really understand it, because he doesn’t try to explain it.
Maybe this sexlessness is why Yunior still feels like a cipher, despite being the main character. If you think about a potential relationship longingly—and there’s a lot of longing here—it’s because there’s this shadow of what might be stretching long before it, all those positions to explore, or left to explore, if you’re longing for someone you’ve lost. That the sex is shallow, when it does happen, means the emotions lack a punch. It’s like a horror movie in which the murders aren’t very gory: it’s harder to be scared for the dopes onscreen.
This is also your way of saying that the women are forgettable. You never even get a chance to like them, because most of the stories, true to the title, are about the end. You’re not sure that Yunior deserves to be happy, even though the book sets you up to root for him.
You wonder if Junot Díaz, whose friends call him Yunior, might have been too close to the subject. You keep returning to this interview he did with New York magazine to promote the book, in which you found out that he a) recently suffered a bad breakup and b) has been under contract to do a book about “the rise and fall of a young cheater” since the success of Drown 16 years ago, when he was 27. To you, this sounded like someone narcing on himself, like he’s on that Substance D stuff from A Scanner Darkly. “Writing short stories in a culture like ours is like giving birth to girls in a Dominican conservative family in the fifties,” he told New York, hastening to add that he loves girl babies. Did he want you to read this book at all?
You liked some of the stories. The one with the female narrator embraces the anxious idea that citizenship is a zero-sum game, and the one in which Yunior goes on vacation with a girlfriend as he tries to ignore their collapsing relationship will ring true to anyone who’s been in that situation. But from reading Oscar Wao, you know that Mr. Díaz is capable of much more, and if this book was required writing, it definitely isn’t required reading. It’s just … fine, and you say that as someone who is pretty close to Mr. Díaz’s ideal reader.
Even so, your opinion of Mr. Díaz hasn’t changed one iota. These stories feel like the B-sides off a really great record, which makes you all the more hungry for that sci-fi apocalypse book. You’d preorder that one FTL.