A week or two ago, a friend of mine on Facebook posted a link to an article that focused on overrated writers. At the bottom of the article was a slideshow breaking down the literary crimes of fifteen different authors. Their sins, according to the writer of the article, range from obscurantism to over-specificity. Mid-way through this slideshow – which was already chockfull of writers I love and admire – up popped a picture of my current literary objet d’amour.
I’m obsessed with Junot Díaz. He’s published three books (Drown, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and This Is How You Lose Her), and I’ve loved them all. I’ve re-read the first two books at least three times each, and I imagine I’ll dig back into the third again before long. It has gotten to the point where, when I’m procrastinating at work, I watch YouTube videos of Díaz giving readings. I spend my free time thinking about how, say, in Oscar Wao, Díaz is able to pull off the trick of hiding his narrator for more than half the book. What I’m saying is, my obsession is full-blown. I figure that’s okay to admit, because it appears that a lot of other people are obsessed too. He won the Pulitzer a few years ago for Oscar Wao. He’s a McArthur Genius. This week he even popped up on The Colbert Report. So, you know, a lot of other folks must feel the way I do. The guy who put together the slideshow is not in that camp.
In the blurb beneath Díaz’s picture, the creator of the slideshow levels two main charges at Díaz. First, that his characters are fixated on getting and having sex, and second, that the voice Díaz uses when telling tales about these characters is juvenile. At the end of the blurb, the writer floats the idea that Díaz, with time, might grow out of all this foolishness.
Lord, I sure hope he doesn’t.
Let’s get this straight first: there’s a lot of sex in This Is How You Lose Her. There’s a lot of sex and a lot of talking about sex and a lot of talking about talking about sex. Most of this is told in the slang-and-profanity-infused narrative voice of Díaz’s chief character, Yunior. The bare-bones: Yunior’s a 30-something writer. He messes up every one of his relationships, usually by cheating. In essence, that’s the external plot of about half the stories in This Is How You Lose Her. But it is, of course, more complicated than that. Or maybe it isn’t.
There’s a simplicity to Díaz’s stories that reminds me an awful lot of Raymond Carver. He gives us characters who act poorly, and those actions – which both we and the characters judge harshly – feel utterly simple on the surface. Yunior cheats because he is a cheater. That simplicity is real, and it is true to the characters, but it also, in a weird paradoxical way, belies a complexity that exists almost entirely off the page. The subtext of Yunior’s actions speaks more loudly than his bombastic narration would indicate. The best stories in This Is How You Lose Her speak to the contradictions inherent in Yunior’s character. “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” opens with the line “I’m not a bad guy.” Yunior disproves this statement time and again, but there is a core humanity to him that keeps us invested and that, ultimately, proves the statement true, right up until he disproves it again. There’s a lot of repetition in This Is How You Lose Her. Yunior repeats his mistakes, and the reader’s feelings about him cycle from pity to empathy to anger to affection to pity to empathy, and so on and so forth.
Yes, Díaz tends to write about sex a lot, and yes, most of his stories employ the same narrative voice. But there is a real depth of human emotion in these stories. To dismiss them because of the voice or the subject matter feels reductionist and more than a little silly to me. It smacks of those critics who belittled Faulkner for only writing about the south. He was a mere regionalist writer, donchaknow. Great writing is able to invest the universal in the microcosm of specificity. The specificity that Díaz chooses is the internal life of Yunior. He makes mistakes, learns from them, then makes them again, and if that sounds frustrating, it’s because Díaz wants it to be. He doesn’t assume that every reader will share Yunior’s cheating heart, but he knows that fundamental truth of the human condition: everything we do is simpler than it seems; everything we do is more complex. The stories in This Is How You Lose Her let that truth play out time and again. They, like all the best fiction, are entertaining and funny and heartbreaking and painful and honest. It’s as simple as that.
Pages: 213 FoA Pages: 15,382