Junot Díaz’s second collection of stories, and only his third full-length published book following the success of his debut novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This is How You Lose Her returns to the territory of the early diaspora tales Drown. With the exception of ‘Otravida, Otravez’ (‘Another Life, Another Time’), these stories are linked by the narration of Yunior, whose in many ways typical experience of economic migration as a child from ‘the Island’—the Dominican Republic —to New Jersey is offered to the reader in a voice of quite untypical energy and verve.
Information about Yunior and his family is released steadily and non-chronologically, the full sadness of their tragedies gradually filled in rather than, as might have been the case, stated bluntly with cultural differences up front and centre. These stories are much, much better than that. This is partly owing to the way they mash up dialects, languages and registers, from East Coast American street English to slangy, Dominican Spanish via a literary language that somehow manages to successfully mediate between the two, often thrown at an unsuspecting reader in an effectively direct second person. In ‘The Pura Principle’, for example, a description of the money-grabbing and inappositely named Pura crams at least three registers and two languages into a paragraph that also, as though grandstanding, reflects on its own linguistic make-up. Pura is
Guapísima as hell: tall and indiecita, with huge feet and an incredibly soulful face, but unlike your average hood hottie Pura seemed not to know what to do with her fineness, was sincerely lost in all the pulchritude. A total campesina, from the way she held herself down to the way she talked, which was so demotic I couldn’t understand half of what she said – she used words like deguabinao and estribao on the regular.
Dominicans are marked by their campo talk, or by their adopted Americanisms. Some words of Russian find their way in briefly. And cutting through these comes, occasionally and perfectly timed, a measured poeticism at a further remove from events, some authorial presence who seems at once Yunior’s later, writing self, who narrates the last story, and Diaz himself. Such marked literary fragments stand out in relief from the polyglottal heave of Yunior’s narration, and often have a Catholic savour. As when, for instance, Yunior is talking about how much he loves returning to Santo Domingo, observing the others on the plane, one a ‘redhead woman on her way to meet the daughter she hasn’t seen in eleven years. The gifts she holds on her lap, like the bones of a saint.’ Or when Yunior is sleeping with his Joyce professor and, trying not to go round to her apartment daily, ‘The one time you skip, you recant and end up slipping out of your apartment at three in the morning and knocking furtively on her door until she lets you in.’ ‘Recant’, here, works as a recantation that leads perversely to further sins, not their absolution. The word is so well modulated within an otherwise quite flat sentence that it almost skates by, hiding its significance.
Díaz said in a recent Guardian interview that Yunior’s character is partly also an exploration of what it is to be a sucio, a dirty cheat, like his father and brother, yet categorically different from them. From this tension flows an undertow of great power. As a writer, Yunior is not like them – he hangs around in bookshops, makes erudite references – but as a man he finds himself unable to avoid the taste for infidelity he sees as his inheritance. It is particularly appropriate, therefore, and presumably no accident, that each time he is caught (he is always caught), it is through the medium of text: he is betrayed to different girls by a letter, his journals and his email account, written traces that can’t be denied or foresworn. Rather than trying, in ‘Alma’, he jokily attempts to pass off the dirty journal entries with the unsuccessful excuse that ‘Baby, you say, baby, this is part of my novel’ – a further transmutation into a further text. Of course, the plea cuts no ice: ‘This is how you lose her.’
How refreshing it is for narratives of displacement – drawing, we assume, at least partially on autobiography – to make language an active participant rather than consign it to its more familiar function, as transparent glass through which the ‘content’ of the stories may be safely observed at a distance. Diaz shows us that the experiences of disapora and migrancy, their corollary nostalgia for home and the difficulties of adapting to a new culture, can only be done honestly if filtered through the linguistic blend implicit in US/Latino interactions. Fiction like this is, I would argue, closer to whatever we may wish to term ‘experimental’ than a more studied avant-garde seriousness. Instead of enacting a convoluted reflection on exactly how it is bending linguistic norms, This is How You Lose Her just gets on and does it, and the results are enormously pleasurable and moving.
Dan Eltringham is Co-Editor at The Literateur.