This Is How You Write Seductively

The Boston area has been home to some of the most gifted fiction writers concerned with the contemporary immigrant experience — think Gish Jen, for starters. Or think Jhumpa Lahiri, whose Boston University days peppered her work until vamoosing to Brooklyn. And ever since his 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Yao,” everybody seemingly has been thinking Junot Díaz.

Yunior goes in for sex in a way that might make the legendary Wilt Chamberlain blush.

For good reason. Díaz melds everything from Dominican machismo to tender musings on love and rage against the political machine into a forceful voice of both the Dominican diaspora and the literary quest for 21st century identity. All of that is once again on display in his latest collection, “This Is How You Lose Her.”

His guide/narrator/alter ego is Yunior, the same fellow who tried to convert Oscar from nerdism, obesity and other self-destructive tendencies in the earlier book. Yunior still goes in for sex in a way that might make the legendary Wilt Chamberlain blush. He and other Dominicans in the book trade fidelity for hedonism in a way that borders on the stereotypical. And as the politics in the book are much less overt – Trujillo and his thugs are not a part of this story – “This Is How You Lose Her” might be dismissed as less serious than “Oscar.”

That would not be an accurate conclusion. If the plot of these somewhat connected stories turns on the nexus of love and lust, there is nevertheless the sense of a quest for something deeper. The quest is for a sense of identity in the face of 21st century dissolution — the Dominican diaspora, the death of any kind of over-arching mythology for post-Boomers, generational and ethnic fractiousness — all the ingredients that have won acclaim for writers as diverse as Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, and Díaz.

Junot Diaz

Author Junot Diaz. (Photo by Nina Subin, courtesy of Riverhead Books)

Yunior’s obsessiveness about the opposite sex seems joyless, as most obsessions ultimately are. The same for his attempts to find much sustenance in popular culture or ethnocentrism. They get him only so far. Díaz’s writing is often celebrated for its earthy embrace of all of the above, but those are, in the scheme of things, minor accomplishments. What makes Diaz more impressive is the underlying acknowledgment of the tragedy underneath that macho earthiness. Díaz’s philandering borders on the suicidal when measured against the loss of love from any self-respecting woman.

I’m not sure how well we get to know Yunior, despite all his reflecting on what went wrong with his love life. Then again, he doesn’t know himself. He begins by stating “I’m not a bad guy” and he isn’t. But there’s seemingly no code of behavior — nationally, ethnically, generationally — that can make sense of his life.

The women of the book fare better in that regard than Yunior. At least they seem to know what the stakes are, particularly Yasmin, who works in a laundry room in a story that doesn’t involve Yunior, “Otravida Otravez.” The depiction of poverty and her methods of coping make this some of of Díaz’s most soulful writing.

It also makes me wonder if Díaz might ultimately be better off relying less on Yunior in the future. Just as most mystery writers do their best writing without a standing detective, Díaz might find richer soil without the encumbrance of an alter ego. I’d love to read a nonfiction book about his experiences teaching creative writing at MIT.  Yunior might ultimately play the same role for Díaz that Nathan Zuckerman plays for Philip Roth. In honor of Díaz’s penchant for mixing English and Spanish together, we’ll just say, Nada wrong with that.

Excerpted from THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER  by Junot Díaz by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2012 by Junot Díaz

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 e­mail trash can, she caught you with fifty! Sure, over a six­year period, but still. Fifty fucking girls? Goddamn. Maybe if you’d been engaged to a super open-minded blanquita you could have survived it—but you’re not engaged to a super open­minded blanquita. Your girl is a bad­ass salcedeña who doesn’t believe in open anything; in fact the one thing she warned you about, that she swore she would never forgive, was cheating. I’ll put a machete in you, she promised. And of course you swore you wouldn’t do it. You swore you wouldn’t. You swore you wouldn’t.

And you did.

She’ll stick around for a few months because you dated for a long long time. Because you went through much together—her father’s death, your tenure madness, her bar exam (passed on the third attempt). And because love, real love, is not so easily shed. Over a tortured six-­month period you will fly to the DR, to Mexico (for the funeral of a friend), to New Zealand. You will walk the beach where they filmed The Piano, something she’s always wanted to do, and now, in penitent desperation, you give it to her. She is immensely sad on that beach and she walks up and down the shining sand alone, bare feet in the freezing water, and when you try to hug her she says, Don’t. She stares at the rocks jutting out of the water, the wind taking her hair straight back. On the ride back to the hotel, up through those wild steeps, you pick up a pair of hitchhikers, a couple, so mixed it’s ridiculous, and so giddy with love that you almost throw them out the car. She says nothing. Later, in the hotel, she will cry.

You try every trick in the book to keep her. You write her letters. You drive her to work. You quote Neruda. You compose a mass e-mail disowning all your sucias. You block their e-mails. You change your phone number. You stop drinking. You stop smoking. You claim you’re a sex addict and start attending meetings. You blame your father. You blame your mother. You blame the patriarchy. You blame Santo Domingo. You find a therapist. You cancel your Facebook. You give her the passwords to all your e­mail accounts. You start taking salsa classes like you always swore you would so that the two of you could dance together. You claim that you were sick, you claim that you were weak—­It was the book! It was the pressure!—­and every hour like clockwork you say that you’re so so sorry. You try it all, but one day she will simply sit up in bed and say, No more, and, Ya, and you will have to move from the Harlem apartment that you two have shared. You consider not going. You consider a squat protest. In fact, you say won’t go. But in the end you do.


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  • Anaa_Castillo

    I disagree with this review. While Oscar so beautifully
    captured how the monolithic and oppressive narrative/rule of the dictatorship
    fractured and infused the lives of many generations of Dominicans, permeating
    the bodies and desires, in “This is How You Lose Her” you see the cruelty of
    one character (Yunior) hidden in the badassery of Junot’s popping cursing lingo
    (a new form of smooth-talking) and comedy (much of which I found in bad taste
    in this book, meaning that the comic tone is often directed at the women and at
    himself-as-failure, but never at himself-as-ABUSER). I wish the sucias and
    ex-es in this book could rise from the margins and speak for themselves what it
    was like to love this character, but instead Junot/Yunior get the last
    narrative and the last narrative laugh.


    Junot wants us to feel compassion for the “deeply flawed” Yunior, but Yunior (it is clear) is so
    profoundly incapable of feeling real compassion for ANY of the women in this
    book, even the ones he purports to have loved. No one talks so endlessly about
    the difficulty of loving—has narrative upon narrative to justify their
    cruelty and dismissive behavior toward others, has whole theories d’love that
    never pan out—as a serial philanderer. To say he’s waiting for the “first
    person who comes up to [him] and says they’re not [flawed]” is to be flippant
    about the fact that there are flaws and then there are FLAWS, that there is
    hurting others and being confused about how to love and then there is SERIALLY
    USING women, SERIALLY disregarding that their feelings are even relevant, and
    what’s particularly disturbing about this adult-version of Yunior is that he
    believes his narratives so much, from the opening “I’m not a bad guy” until the
    end, despite the evidence piling up against him. I’m all for sympathizing with
    characters and people that are victims of the larger culture or childhood
    abuse, but there is a certain point—as an adult—that that person
    (regardless of past history) becomes responsible for the way he treats others,
    and Yunior is way beyond that point. It comes as no great shock at the end when
    of “A Cheater’s Guide” that Yunior agrees that his fiancé SHOULD have left him;
    but what does come as a shock is that this IS an epiphany for Yunior.
    Seriously?!?! Dios mio. I’m not persuaded in the least, at the end of this book
    that Yunior “sees women clearly” or that he sees them at all . . . it seems
    that his epiphanies (if there are any real ones) arise instead out of his own
    narcissistic struggle to lessen his own intense pain, a pain that arises not
    out of true feeling, but out of endless misunderstandings about why women do
    not stick by him (regardless of his womanizing).  If I learned anything
    from this book it is this: that what is scary about deeply scarred people is
    that no one else’s pain will ever seem as real to them as their own. NEVER. And
    that . . . as Maya Angelou so beautifully puts it—-“The first time someone
    shows you who they are, believe them.”

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