“I’m not a bad guy. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good.”
This introduction to Junot Díaz’s, M.F.A. ’95, second collection of short stories, This is How You Lose Her, could be considered the thesis of the work. Díaz’s voice has always been a unique combination of gruesome, aggressive and graceful. What you think you’re reading is a series of horrible things done by horrible people. By the end, however, you are startlingly aware that the abuses Díaz’s characters heap on those they love are the by-products of distinctly universal human failings. Newsweek has described Díaz as one with “the dispassionate eye of a journalist and the tongue of a poet.” Indeed, Díaz reaches standards of honesty and forthrightness that can only be described as journalistic. His voice is a far cry from the traditional interpretation of “poetic,” though — it’s fast and aggressive, often angry. It’s English, but also Spanish; it’s an American story, and a Dominican story, too; as much as this book is about romantic relationships, it is about familial ones, as well as the overlap between. Díaz has a lot to say in a mere 200 pages and, to get it all out, he has no choice but to forgo restraint.
Díaz made a mark on the literary world with his widely-acclaimed first collection of stories, Drown, in 1996 and his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008. The boy Yuníor narrates several of the stories in Drown and appears again in full-force as an adolescent and adult to narrate the majority of the stories in This is How You Lose Her. It is irresponsible at this point to pretend that Yuníor is anything but Díaz’s own consciousness, as he represents the strongest, most consistent and by far the most tortured voice of every story he appears in. The recurring character Rafa, Yuníor’s brother, is a haunting one — cruel and dispassionate, “a monster,” but ultimately a brother, a hero and Yuníor’s one role model when it comes to love, for better or for worse.
Largely, it’s for worse. Every story in this collection is about love gone or going wrong. Any statement of emotion has a qualifier, and almost every story with a male narrator involves infidelity. These narrator are painfully aware of their own deficiencies. The first story of the collection, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” is not about the way that cheating can damage a relationship, but rather how a lack of dedication to saving it in the aftermath can destroy it completely. “Our relationship wasn’t the sun, the moon and the stars, but it wasn’t bullshit either,” is the narrator’s evaluation of losing the battle to keep the woman he loves. “All we have to do is try,” he says. But the story ends before that can happen.
The story “Flaca” is an eight-page love letter. But not admittedly so. “It was sort of like love, wasn’t it?” asks the narrator, in characteristic hesitation. This story is about nothing other than that quickly-encapsulated uncertainty. The deficiencies are within and the excuse is, “That’s the most we can hope for. Nothing thrown, nothing said that we might remember for years. You don’t want to let go, but don’t want to be hurt either. It’s not a great place to be but what can I tell you?” It can be frustrating, this constant apathy in the face of something so important. And initially, the cultural dissonance that rings throughout Díaz’s work is not especially relatable to a variety of readers. But in truth, these are not stories of cultural or socioeconomic or political entrapment — only stories of being trapped in general. The problems and hang-ups that destroy Díaz’s characters aren’t dreamt up at all, but things we all suffer from. Insecurities and fear and hesitation and blind stupidity derail all of us, and with his brutal depictions and carefully gruesome prose, Díaz constructs a window for us to find ourselves in his experience.
The shortest story in the collection is also one of the most powerful and the one from which the collection takes its title. “Alma” is a simple story, one of cheating — like most in this book — and it is a theme which would get old if it wasn’t confronted from so many different angles. “Alma” introduces the angle of self-incrimination. Díaz’s narrators record their sins in letters, diaries and photographs and hide them there — but not well. And this, Díaz says, “is how you lose her.” As much as writing may serve to incriminate its creator, it retains duality in its power as a release. The longest and most autobiographic story of the book, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” is a summary of the five years following the demise of a relationship. The peace from this story doesn’t come from some sort of resolution with the people that have been hurt. It admits that this is sometimes impossible. The journals that revealed the infidelity are mailed to the narrator. In thinly-veiled metafiction, the accompanying note reads, “Dear Yuníor, for your next book.” The narrator begins the work in earnest, saying, “In the months that follow you bend to the work, because it feels like hope, like grace — and because you know in your lying cheater’s heart that sometimes a start is all you get.” This is How You Lose Her leaves us with the feeling which is exactly that, a start. It’s something “like grace,” in that it recognizes love and family as a divine, undeserved gift, and it makes some sort of tentative avowal to move toward appreciating it instead of losing it.