So you’re sitting at a café reading a new, smutty, and not particularly enlightening short-story collection by Junot Díaz called This Is How You Lose Her. Four of the nine stories are written in the second-person, that much-maligned and warned-against middle child from the family of narrative modes. That Díaz does this so often makes you wonder whether he’s up to something original here, or if he’s just phoning it in—this being only the second book he’s published in the 16 years since his first short-story collection, Drown.
What makes you wonder if Díaz is phoning it in is that, for one, the book is a little thin—that despite generous spacing and gratuitously fancy title pages preceding each story, the total page count of the book only slightly exceeds 200. Another reason is that, just like in Drown, almost every one of these minimal, slangy, Spanish-sprinkled stories is about a character named Yunior, the details of whose fictional life are almost perfectly parallel to that of Díaz—i.e. growing up poor in the Dominican Republic and New Jersey, with a sickly and aggressive brother and an estranged father, and then making it big and becoming a writing professor at M.I.T.
To read about the same character in slightly varied circumstances over and over again makes you feel like Díaz just isn’t trying hard enough. The one story that’s not about an unfaithful Hispanic male living on the East Coast of the United States proves the rule. The story, “Otravida, Otravez,” is instead about a loyal Hispanic female living on the East Coast of the United States, who works as a laundress and who’s dating a man about to buy his first house—and who’s cheating on his wife back home in the Caribbean.
“Otravida, Otravez” actually reads like good literary fiction, in that it makes you feel like you’re mysteriously and voyeuristically passing through the walls of another person’s psyche. Whereas with the other stories in the collection you feel like you’re being talked to by someone—someone who admits he’s a dishonest son of a bitch, but who wants you to believe he’s brilliant and sincere. The last story is a great example of this. “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” which was published in the New Yorker only a couple of months ago, opens with the following:
Year 0 - Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually she’s your fiancée, but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.) She could have caught you with one sucia, she could have caught you with two, but as you’re a totally batshit cuero who didn’t ever empty his e-mail trash can, she caught you with fifty! Sure, over a six-year period, but still. Fifty fucking girls? Goddamn.
And so it goes for about 40 more pages, until Díaz’s alter-ego runs out of breath, wraps things up, and places on top of his sultry confessions a glossy, optimistic, and platitudinous little bow: “That’s about it. 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 we ever get.”
If a lying cheater is the kind of person with whom you enjoy spending your precious free time and with whom you enjoy curling up with at night, then This Is How You Lose Her will gladly make your acquaintance. But if you want something a little more generous and a little more honest (not to mention a little more creative), look elsewhere.
Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her was released on September 11 by Riverhead Books. To purchase it, click here.