Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Díaz on the power of love.
Take a professor from MIT, one who has previously won a Pulitzer Prize and was the recipient of a Genius grant, give him five years, and what will he produce? A collection of short stories based around the universal—and unexpected—theme of love, and an annoying feeling of wanting to know how much of this is based on his own life.
It’s been five years since Junot Díaz’s last book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and only his third book overall. The character of Yunior introduced in his first book, Drown, serves as the narrator in Oscar Wao, and Diaz has stuck with him again for This Is How You Lose her (Faber and Faber, NZ$35).
Comprising of nine equally fantastic stories, Yunior tells us about the power and impossibilities of the love he’s experienced. Yunior is a character we should hate; everything he does just makes us want to yell at him. And yet I sympathised with him, despite the voice in my head saying “he’s a dick.” Although the opening of the book sets up what is to come over the collection of stories, there’s still some great surprises to come. Yunior explains in the opening story, ‘The Sun, the Moon, the Stars’: “I’m not a bad guy. I know how that sounds—defensive, unscrupulous—but it’s true. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good. Magdalena disagrees though.” And sure, we probably shouldn’t be rooting for him—after all, he makes the same mistakes over and over—but as Yunior tries so hard to make things right, we can’t help but side with the underdog.
What struck me about This is How You Lose Her is the way Yunior lets us into his life as though you’ve been talking smack with him for years. “You know how it is,”, he says, as if nudging us in the arm after explaining his actions. Suddenly we’re complicit in Yunior’s crimes. But not just his crimes: his father’s, his brother’s. But then he turns, and Yunior bares his soul by imagining the relationship between his father and mistress in New Jersey while the rest of the family are back in Dominican Republic; and then again through the love/hate relationship with his brother. This intimacy Díaz creates makes us want to keep turning the pages, to find out whose crimes you’ll discover this time, and who’s going to be hurt.
This intimacy is fuelled by the changing narratives between stories. Díaz alternates between first- and second-person narrative seamlessly and without hesitation. I was in the shoes of Veronica when Yunior relays their love back to her in ‘Flaca’; I was Yunior in ‘Miss Lora’, trying to figure out if getting involved with an older lady is a smart idea, and then there I am again, the cheater, in ‘The Cheater’s Guide to Love’—I don’t want to be, but it’s too late.
I used the word unexpected to describe this theme of love because as we read, Yunior guides us through different types of love. And these aren’t just his female conquests; as the blurb explains, it’s about “passionate love, illicit love, fading love, maternal love.” Diaz’s characters are human in a wonderfully tragic way, from his descriptions of them, through to the way love makes them act. Yunior introduces us to Pura in ‘The Pura Principle’, and explains that she’s Dominican, “As in fresh-off-the-boat-didn’t-have-no-papers Dominican,” and so she ends up in New Jersey with a kid, free-loading off anything she can sink her claws in to. ‘The Cheater’s Guide to Love’ gives us Elvis, the committed-to-his-family best friend of Yunior who’s sleeping with anything else that moves on the side. While I’m not saying this is how the whole world acts, Díaz captures something real about these characters, which begs the question how many of these people feature, or have featured, in Díaz’s own life.
After such a defensive opening and the realistic characters that feature, the nagging question of what’s real and how much is dramatised is there. Yunior takes us into his life, makes us a real part of it. But how much of it is a fictional character’s life, or the author’s? Yunior has been referred to a quasi-autobiographical character, after first appearing in the early 1990s. Recently in an interview with the New York Times, Diaz stood for the duration of the interview due to major back surgery; in ‘The Cheater’s Guide to Love’, Yunior discovers he has a serious back problem. The more I researched Díaz, the more parallels I began to draw, and the more I needed to know what was real and what wasn’t. But after finishing the book, that feeling went away. While reading This is How You Lose Her, everyone’s going to make up their own mind about Díaz and Yunior, and their relationship. I like to believe it’s mostly real; I doubt I’ll ever really know. And ultimately, everyone’s going to come away from these stories knowing something more about themselves, their lives, their friends. I have.
It takes some seriously great writing to get me interested in fiction, and without a doubt everyone needs to be following Junot Díaz. But have a Spanish to English translator within reach while you read—it helps.