SEPTEMBER 11, 2012
THE RECEPTION THAT GREETED The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao showed us that perhaps all anyone needs to become a literary star is an “impressive high-low dexterity,” in A.O. Scott’s words, and, as per Michiko Kakutani, a “slangy, kinetic energy.” It’s true: there’s flash and style and rhythm to Junot Diaz’s literary voice. His From Hell-quoting, skirt-chasing narrators straddle the line between macho and débil and are stuck ni aquí ni allá. In his specificity and irreverence Junot Diaz has succeeded at what all immigrant fiction purportedly does: finding the universal. Diaz’s words don’t so much open a “big picture window,” as Kakutani clumsily claims, as they take a pickaxe to a monolith of historical and racial burden. His educated, streetwise charm was but a Trojan horse for social criticism. But don’t worry — there are jokes, too. Lev Grossman, among others, praised Diaz’s humor, saying that Oscar Wao would just be sad if it weren’t for its moments of levity. There was so much energy and life, in other words, in this story about the absence of true love.
But now what? His latest short fiction collection, This Is How You Lose Her, is a stopgap between novels (his science-fiction love story Monstro is in the works). It contains stories that have been published almost exclusively in The New Yorker, either as advance publicity for this book’s release or as crumbs from the Drown period, and each touches upon now-familiar Diaz settings, in now-familiar turns of perspective. We gaze out on snowy and barren New Jersey, on lush and warm Santo Domingo; we run down the street after a scorned lover who is screaming at us in Spanish; we make love in basements, among pictures of families. Mothers loom and disapprove. Fathers leave and misunderstand. But if we focus only on his mastery of these now familiar archetypes, his conjuring of “different worlds,” his buffet of “high-low” references, we aren’t addressing the core of Diaz’s work. We cannot talk about Diaz’s fiction without talking about rape and the love that victims subsequently seek. Consent and power are two of Diaz’s great subjects, and those ideas are inexpressible, he might argue, without stories of sexual and intimate violation. When A.O. Scott calls this writing “sexy” and “diamond sharp,” he’s not wrong, but that’s not all.
In a recent interview with The Boston Review, Diaz gave a reading of his most common narrative voice:
Why is Yunior such a dog? Just because? Or is there something deeper? Think about it: isn’t promiscuity another typical reaction to sexual abuse? Compulsive promiscuity is certainly Yunior’s problem. A compulsive promiscuity that is a national masculine ideal in some ways and whose roots I see in the trauma of our raped pasts. Like I said: it’s probably not there at all — too subtle. But the fact of Yunior’s rape certainly helped me design the thematic economy of the book.
The revelation that his most persistent voice comes from a history of sexual abuse is startling. This biographical detail is not on the surface even in Oscar Wao, a book that fixates on rape as its characters’ curse, yet it is the primary subject of the story “Miss Lora,” the penultimate piece in This Is How You Lose Her. The tale of a statutory rape told from the perspective of the minor, “Miss Lora” frames the relationship in question as a seduction. But whose seduction is it? The feelings Yunior has for his next-door neighbor, a wiry middle-aged woman who could make “Iggy Pop look chub,” are already there when she flirts with him openly for the first time.
People always touched you. You were used to it. You were an amateur weightlifter, something else you did to keep your mind off the shit of your life. […] Most of the time it didn’t bother you, the way girls and sometimes guys felt you up. But with Miss Lora you could tell something was different. Miss Lora touched you and you suddenly looked up and noticed how large her eyes were on her thin face, how long her lashes were, how one iris had more bronze in it than the other.
“People always touched you.” But her touch is different. They flirt by comparing muscles (“I’m the one who could pick you up,” she says). He walks her home from the grocery store; the sexual tension is unbearable. When they finally hook up, the calm voice narrating Yunior’s memories, echoing the brotherly tone of Drown’s “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie,” says: “You wonder if she feels like you do. Like it might be love.” Yunior is watching her make him a cheeseburger. It isn’t love, but it takes him years to get over whatever it is. The language of teenage crushes is used to great effect, to the point where I had to reread the sentence in which a character calls this relationship what it is legally: a rape. “They should arrest that crazy bitch,” Yunior’s college girlfriend says. He protests: “It wasn’t like that.”
God, this stuff hurts. Diaz is unrelenting in showing us gross and vulnerable parts of his characters. Miss Lora asks Yunior to pull her hair when they’re having anal sex, and she wears all red to his graduation because he told her it was his favorite color. In another story, Yunior takes pictures of a sexual conquest while she’s sleeping in the nude, and he never deletes them from his phone. Another story features Yunior’s brother Rafa fingering a 13 or 14-year-old girl on the bus, then holding his hand to his brother’s nose and saying, “Smell this…This is what’s wrong with women.” These details don’t totally shock a sophisticated audience, but they still feel like betrayals of confidence. I’d blush to hear these stories if they were about my friends.
The problem of judgment has been persistent in Diaz’s fiction. It’s not enough, he reiterates in the Boston Review interview, to see racist and misogynistic characters; he must show how those attitudes negatively affect his characters. For Yunior, the pursuit of tail is wrapped in biological destiny, fear of death, and undying fascination. In “Miss Lora,” he believes, with an anticipation verging on desire, that the world will blow up at any moment. It is with resignation that he matures and admits the world will never end. He reckons with his family’s history of cheating, admitting that he has the genes for it; in story after story he describes his indiscretions as inevitabilities. “We got into a habit,” he says about the girl who would be the catalyst for a nasty break-up, “of going to lunch and having the same conversation.” In this way, we aren’t lectured on rape culture, only witness to it. Diaz’s men are despicable and entitled and so sad I want to give them a big hug. None of them really repent. To Diaz’s Dominican men, every girl is gorgeous and “on you almost immediately,” and her nether regions taste of beer. This is a weirdly repetitive tic: when Oscar finally consummates a relationship, his partner tastes like “Heineken” — the yeasty comparison is made again in “Miss Lora,” when Yunior finally gets to third base with his usually celibate girlfriend. These metaphors are always made in conversation with “your boys.” All their mothers can do is shake their heads.
Perhaps nowhere are the consequences of this unrepentant attitude as fleshed out as in “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” a chronicle of the aftermath of an epic series of infidelities. Fifty women on the side ruin the one relationship Yunior cannot shake. “The half-life of love is forever,” he concludes after five years of never getting over it. But haven’t we heard this sort of melancholy exaggeration before? “Let me tell you about Magda,” he says in “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars,” as if he were introducing an apostle. About another girl, Nilda: “She was Dominican, from here, and had super-long hair, like those Pentecostal girls, and a chest you wouldn’t believe — I’m talking world-class.” Yet another chick has “an ass that could drag the moon out of orbit.” And Magda again, when they’re on the beach in the Dominican Republic: “She’s got a half-moon of sand stuck to her butt. A total fucking heartbreak.” So what makes the relationship in “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” so special? The girl that causes Yunior’s downfall is barely there at all. He gazes less on her. No galactic booty, no renowned breasts. Just the absence of what we’re told, what we eventually believe was real love. Love lasts the longest. Not sex, not power, not our bodies, but love. Yunior loses that because of a lifetime of bad habits and a penchant for sexual dominance, and whether he’ll overcome that pattern is left open.
Diaz names the central question of Oscar Wao in his Boston Review interview: “is it possible to overcome the horrible legacy of slavery and find decolonial love?” Be more general, call slavery oppression, and you have the core of most, if not all, of his work. Can you escape a dominant narrative of destruction and find hope? The stories in This Is How You Lose Her say no or maybe, for the most part. The main exception, the one story that feels like a bridge to this greater, love-conquers-all world, is “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” and it ends elliptically.
I was sharing my galley with a friend, and, because he got to the book before me, his reactions are all over the margins. At the end of “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” he wrote: “Anticlimactic.” He’s right. The Cheater doesn’t find love in the end. There’s no tearful closure. Instead, the cheater sits down to write about what he had done. Before you clear your throat and wonder why it’s so revelatory to read a fiction writer glorifying the act of writing, consider that this simple, solitary act hints at a greater theme in Diaz’s work, a theme that he is revving up, although he doesn’t quite get it going in this collection. The cycle of oppression, even perpetrated on a local scale of the heart, could stop if we replaced it with something else. While Yunior has tried everything to get over this lost love, from yoga, to single moms, to attempts at suicide, he hasn’t tried to write about it, to rewrite it.
In a profile for New York magazine, Diaz recounts how a friend reacted when told that this next book was a short story collection instead of a novel. It was the way my friend sharing the galley reacted — with disappointment. Diaz explains:
An image sprang to my mind, which was the look on my grandparents’ faces when somebody told them a daughter was born. They were…happy. If you’d seen their faces when a son was born, you would’ve known something they were happy about.
The subconscious expectation that sprouts from an agreed upon hierarchy abounds in Diaz’s writing about men. So what about women? The next book — a novel, finally, if he keeps at it — is an apocalypse story with a tiny brown girl at its center. And it’s exciting, isn’t it, to think about a child, a girl, at the edge of the end of days and, one hopes, beginning something great. There’s such energy and life in that trope.