Junot Diaz’s latest collection of short stories, This is How You Lose Her, continues to mine the author’s experiences as a Dominican immigrant in New Jersey. This second collection of stories follows where his first collection, Drown, left off—tracking the love life of his narrator Yunior.
While this collection is a series of love stories, they are not sentimental or romantic, but rather raw-edged and brutal narratives about love. Each story explores the myriad ways in which Yunior’s sexism and misogyny undermines his romantic aspirations. We saw traces of this theme in Drown, particularly in the short story “How to Date a Brown Girl (black girl, white girl, or halfie)”, but Diaz further sharpens his focus on his character’s misogyny. As the first story in the collection “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” begins, Yunior loses his girlfriend after she discovers adulterous letters that Yunior wrote to another woman. “I’m not a bad guy,” Yunior lets readers know, seeking sympathy for his earnest, yet bumbling steps toward fidelity.
In truth, Yunior isn’t a bad guy, but someone driven myopically by learned behavior, cultural norms and history. His father, driven from his native home during the Trujillo administration, immigrates to New Jersey where he eventually takes up with another woman. Yunior, his older brother Rafa and their mother follow only to eventually realize the new downgraded status that they hold in their father’s life. Eventually, both Rafa and Yunior continue their father’s sad legacy. There are differences between the brothers—Rafa boldly pursues women with little consideration to their emotional lives, while Yunior is a bit more reflective and guilt-ridden. And while Yunior straddles both worlds of American and Dominicano, collegiate and street-wise, in the end, he is his father’s son.
Diaz refuses to comment on his narrator’s life choices, refuses to placate a readership that might condemn Yunior’s attitudes toward women. He lays it all out there, allowing readers to judge his narrator’s behavior. This has earned him some criticism from those who believe he is too unquestioning of his characters’ sexism. Even as Yunior pleads for sympathy and understanding, his behavior makes it impossible to fully exonerate him. He reduces women to body parts: “Bitch made Iggy Pop look chub,” as he describes the older woman who lived in his apartment building and with whom, at the age of sixteen, he had an affair. The casual way that he hurts his girlfriends, as much as he comes to regret it, makes him unlikable. Yet, at heart, Yunior is also a romantic with artistic ambitions and desiring of love.
In the final story, “A Cheater’s Guide to Love,” Yunior spirals into a physical and emotional tailspin after losing yet another girlfriend to his womanizing. The long struggle he undertakes to climb out of the hole he created forces him to move slowly away from his tortured past.
As strong as many of the stories in this collection are, Diaz’s themes seem generally well-worn and expected. Perhaps this is beacause Diaz covered much of the same motifs and material in Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
The most effecting of the stories are ones that take a different vantage point and uncover surprising aspects of his characters’ lives. “Otravida, Otravez,” is the only story that is not narrated by Yunior and is about Yunior’s father’s mistress. Diaz shows a more sensitive hand in revealing the subtle costs of being the “other woman.” He also illuminates how complex and ultimately unfulfilling the American Dream can be for immigrants who must navigate large cultural differences in their adopted home. Though this story was published over a decade ago, its inclusion widens the perspective in the collection and provides the commentary that many readers have complained is lacking in Diaz’s stories.
“The Pura Principle,” another strong story in the collection, follows Rafa’s struggle with the cancer that will eventually kill him. Here, we witness Rafa’s self-destruction in the face of death. Rafa’s machismo renders him unable to accept his own vulnerability and threatens his relationships with his brother and mother. Inadvertently, Rafa’s example also becomes a model for Yunior as he navigates his love pursuits. In this story, subject matter that could easily have become been maudlin and sentimental, remains sharp and uncompromising in its characterization.
This is How You Lose Her is a good collection of steady, hard-earned lessons about love. While the best of the stories offer some new insights, most of the stories are in keeping with themes Diaz has tackled in the past.