Junot Diaz’s “This Is How You Lose Her”

Junot Diaz's "This Is How You Lose Her"The art of cheating isn’t hard to master.

In fact, it’s not even hard to make that lie effortless, and make it something that sticks to you like roots. Infidelity, just like a past or a homeland, is who you are and where you’ve come from, more than a momentary mistake or lapse of judgment.  Junot Diaz’s new book, This Is How You Lose Her, a collection of stories about the life of Yunior and all the wronged women therein, points us toward the nastier idea that this inability to love exclusively is a matter of culture. Dominican men, the pages all seem to insist, are branded from day one.  They will lose and lose and lose their women as if by birthright, or maybe they won’t, but only because of what those women don’t know – and is that any worse, if the two really do love one another in some true, deep way? Maybe not.  But Diaz manages to keep the answer at arm’s length with a refrain echoed from beginning to end: the half-life of love is forever.

You’re never unaware that you’re reading a book by a Pulitzer Prize winner. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, granted the prize in 2008, is still a book I ache to read again for the first time. It hurts that I can never have it back as something new and transformative – that is the kind of author we’re dealing with. That is Junot Diaz. And to some degree it’s Yunior, too, from vernacular to shared cityscapes, but whether or not our writer is creating Yunior in his own image is a far less interesting question than whether or not he was infused in the character of Oscar Wao. Yunior, instead, is most compelling when viewed as a microcosm of a larger problem, because while he is very much his own character and never reads as a blandly archetypal figure, his situation is defined by its non­-uniqueness: he is one of a thousand Santo Domingo men who seemingly have this capacity for lying and cheating and sneaking as naturally as breathing. This is how you lose her: by being who you are.

Yes—it’s an opposites-attract sort of thing, it’s a great-sex sort of thing, it’s a no-thinking sort of thing. It’s wonderful! Wonderful! Until one June day Alma discovers that you are also fucking this beautiful freshman girl named Laxmi, discovers the fucking of Laxmi because she, Alma, the girlfriend, opens your journal and reads. (Oh, she had her suspicions.)

No matter the circumstances that could perhaps explain away the behavior (such as the death of his brother as a teenager or his abusive father or his statutory relationship with a high school teacher), the writing on the wall is that Yunior’s girlfriends and sucias alike never seem too surprised by the transgressions.  Diaz’s stories throughout are a range of inevitability from myriad voices, and that collective is wrenching. The inescapable hurt is all anyone agrees upon; otherwise there are a multitude of conclusions. To the spurned women, entitlement and selfishness make their men act this way; to the red-handed men defending themselves, it’s an honest addiction, beyond control or mediation; to the men who are honest with themselves, all those sucias are a harmless hobby; to the women who can admit it to themselves, it’s the dilemma of being Dominican. And it is a dilemma; Diaz guarantees we understand this from any angle we can.

I need to finish by showing you what kind of fool I was.
When I returned to the bungalow that night, Magda was waiting up for me. Was packed, looked like she’d been bawling.
I sat down next to her. Took her hand. This can work, I said. All we have to do is try.

Even further: Diaz isn’t just talking about whether this infidelity is cultural or reactionary. He’s asking, really, if love is diminished or deteriorated by the cheating. That reads almost laughable at first, maybe, but if it does, that’s only because we haven’t held the other side up to the light. Does love bind itself directly to exclusivity? Should it? Is love objectively at its very best that way? Can someone be genuinely adored if they’re one among fifty? Do we rank our loves in this way without even knowing it?

Some of these questions are enough to make us squirm. That means they’re good and worth asking.  Worth the time to read through every manifested heartache.

I’m not saying my belief in monogamy is shaken to its foundations by This Is How You Lose Her. Not at all.  And it’s hard enough as it is to think through and review this book as a blanquita, a life with a set of inevitabilities all its own. But by admitting it, we’re that much closer to accessing what Junot Diaz’s writing has always offered us: this chasm between two senses of destiny, separated by choice. We are never choosing just who to love but forever choosing how, and one will inform the other until we’re dead. Maybe past that, since half-lives will always last longer than we think or even want them to, longer than we’re loved enough to know.

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