This Is How You Lose Her
Riverhead: 224 pp., $26.95
In the age of e-books and Twitter novels, we old-fashioned, language-loving followers of literature can feel a bit glum. Gadgets seem to matter more than writers do.
Then a book like Junot Díaz’s lands in our laps, and we’re reminded of the acrobatic word wizardry that a true master can bring to the simple printed page.
Reading the stories in Díaz’s new collection, “This Is How You Lose Her,” is often a three-dimensional, laugh-out-loud experience. It’s the voice that transports you: erudite, Caribbean, bilingually foul-mouthed, channeling the assorted insanities of Dominicans, New Jerseyites and English professors.
You turn the pages and you are suddenly and vividly in this alternate American reality. All sorts of loquacious Caribbean types are pontificating, mourning and loving each other. Their raging, romantic spirit is so strong, it can out-duel a disease like the Big C.
“Dude had lost eighty pounds to the chemo, looked like a break-dancing ghoul,” Díaz writes, describing Rafa, the track-suit wearing serial seducer whose lust for life drives the story “The Pura Principle.” “But he prided himself on being the neighborhood lunatic, and he wasn’t going to let a little thing like cancer get in the way.”
Díaz won the Pulitzer Prize for his last book, the novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” a bi-national epic about a sci-fi loving New Jersey son of Dominican immigrants and his family. That book broke all sorts of rules (among other things, it contained long passages of untranslated Spanish). And it established Díaz as a leading voice of American fiction.
The stories in “This Is How You Lose Her,” many of which have appeared in recent years in the pages of the New Yorker, will only add to his reputation for fearless originality.
Take, again, the unforgettable Rafa. He’s a mama’s boy, a “papi chulo” pretty face and a retired drug dealer who hasn’t done a day of honest work in his life. I’m no specialist in onco-literature, but I’m pretty sure Rafa is one of the most unpredictable cancer patients ever to grace the pages of an American short story.
It’s not just Díaz’s eye for the idiosyncrasies of his characters that make these stories so funny and moving: It’s also his fierce wordplay and inventiveness. He’s a writer who’s at once disciplined and free-spirited, as comfortable in his Latin skin as he is in his English prose.
Díaz throws around Spanish in his writing as liberally as Nabokov tossed around French in his. In a single Díaz paragraph, the words “demotic” and “pulchritude” dance with the Spanish “indiecita” (a diminutive for women with Indian features), and “Nueba Yol” (the biggest city in the U.S.), and it doesn’t feel like some forced Latino affectation.
And Díaz will toss in the occasional bilingual neologism too, why not, like “berserkería,” which is the crazy state of affairs in which the broken-hearted English professor finds himself in the story “The Cheater’s Guide to Love.”
Describing that professor’s years-long obsession with the ex he cheated on and who left him, Díaz writes: “On the T [the Boston transit system] you swear you peep her in the rush-hour mix and for a second your knees buckle but it turns out to be just another Latina mujerón in a tailored suit.”
This bilingual, highly idiomatic voice works well simply because Díaz is being true to what’s in his head. He’s also being true to the speech and spirit of the people around him. Bringing a people from the margins of American literature into its mainstream takes talent and ambition. Díaz is lacking in neither quality.
Part of the ambition in “This Is How You Lose Her” is in the variety of its Dominican voices, which range from Dominican American intellectual types to “Dominican Dominicans,” as in “fresh-off-the-boat-didn’t-have-no-papers Dominican.”
There are many strong women in these stories. But only one story, “Otravida, Otravez,” is told from an immigrant woman’s point of view. It doesn’t quite sing as much as all the others. In the end, it’s the voice of male-driven sex and love obsessions that makes Díaz’s stories most memorable. He writes best about players. But they’re guilt-ridden players, men of many foibles. They’re relationship klutzes who thrust themselves into comedic situations with women again and again. But their passions are often lyrical.
“The heat of your face could have kept my room warm for days,” the male narrator says in the story “Flaca.” “I didn’t know how you stood the heat of yourself, of your breasts, your face. I almost couldn’t touch you.”
Those lovers, like most of the others in Díaz’s stories, end up pushing each other away. But while they’re together there is heat, and there is combustion, and there is great literature.