Amidst the praise for Junot Diaz’s new story collection, This is How You Lose Her, some critics are striking the same disappointed notes. The tune goes like this: These stories are good, but they’re no Oscar Wao. When is Monstro coming out? The LA Review of Bookscalls this collection “a stopgap between novels.” The New York Observersays “These stories feel like the B-sides off a really great record, which makes you all the more hungry for that sci-fi apocalypse book.”
While I lovedThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and while I’m excited about the apocalypse book too, I’m not ready to relegate these stories to the flip side of Diaz’s career. These are good stories. These are really good stories, and if I ever get the chance, I’d like to teach them in a workshop on killer endings.
Beyond the high-caliber writing itself, characteristically slick with Spanish slang, pop cultural allusions, and the argot of the academy, these stories form a challenging and deeply personal collection. How You Lose Her focuses on the kinds of dysfunctional relationships that drive so much of the action in Drown and Wao. Here, though, relationships are less vehicles for broader historical and cultural narratives than case studies in themselves, proof of so much historical and cultural dysfunction trickling down into the lives of individuals.
If Wao is a rant, these stories are whispers, perhaps all the more desperate for their intimacy. It can be unbearable at times, but that’s how it feels, as if they’re looking for an audience of one, or an audience of no one, as if Diaz might have written them just for himself in spite of all the people out there waiting around for his next book.
Some of my favorites here are “The Pura Principle,” “Miss Lora,” and “Otravida, Otravez,” the only one not narrated by Diaz’s alter-ego, Yunior. In addition to great endings–which out of sheer restraint I will not spoil here–these stories move through whole personal histories without simply burying the reader in summary or sacrificing character to economy.
In “The Pura Principle,” Yunior looks back at the end of his older brother’s life. “[Rafa] prided himself on being the neighborhood lunatic,” Yunior explains, “wasn’t going to let a little thing like cancer get in the way of his official duties.” He chases girls and picks fights in an effort that might look heroic if it wasn’t so clearly selfish and self-destructive. His exploitative relationship with Pura comes to prove just how far he’s willing to go to appear to be in control.
“Miss Lora” is about Yunior’s affair with an older women, a teacher who takes advantage of him in all the ways he thinks he wants to be taken advantage of in his teen-age years: “It is the first time any girl ever wanted you,” he tells himself. Their secret relationship stretches out over years, seeming at times sweet, at others sick, but always fated to leave Yunior more messed-up place than he was before.
“Otravida, Otravez” provides an interlude in the voice of Yasmin, a Dominican immigrant working in a hospital laundry. She’s trying to start a new life with Ramón, who still has a wife back in the DR, still gets letters from her despite his insistence that it’s over. He manages to offer Yasmin a little life of their own, with a house and everything, but the letters keep coming:
I am pregnant when the next letter finally arrives. Sent from Ramón’s old place to our new home. I pull it from the stack of mail and stare at it. My heart is beating like it’s lonely, like there’s nothing else inside of me. I want to open it but I cal Ana Iris instead; we haven’t spoken in a long time. I stare out at the bird-filled hedges while the phone rings.
Ana Iris is a friend from an apartment Yasmin shares with a faceless group of Dominican women in the beginning of the story, and apart from Ramón, she’s Yasmin’s only other connection in this country. This story portrays the loneliness of the immigrant experience at its most raw, people who have left everything behind seeking solace in places where it’s hard to see and even harder to believe in.
Together with the six other titles in this collection, these stories form a generous arc that almost feels like emotional development, like we’re getting somewhere, or Yunior is. At the very least, the collection is a reckoning that marks the end of a certain destructive way of life. It might even be the beginning of something good.
For anyone waiting anxiously for that apocalypse novel, I have some bad news for you: Diaz is a notoriously and self-proclaimed slow writer, so we might all be waiting a while yet. In the meantime, I have some good news. He has a new story collection out. It’s called This is How You Lose Her. Give it a shot. Read it twice. Take your time. These stories are worth it.