Continuing my study of Junot Diaz I read This Is How You Lose Her, which is a collection of nine short stories set in New Jersey in the Dominican Republic. I read it over two days, finding much of what I loved about The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as well as much of what I disliked about it. I, unlike Maureen Corrigan, liked the style. However like her I had difficulty in finding myself drawn to these characters. More below.
While I am in wholehearted agreement that Diaz’s style is unique and compelling, I say this as someone that doesn’t read a large amount of modern novelists, preferring at this moment the classics of world literature. That caveat given, I find the pacing, the internal dialogue, and the terminology to be compelling. Unfortunately I believe that here the insertion of Spanish here to be much less sensible than that in Wao. It seems without rhyme or reason, perhaps merely to remind the lazy reader that the narrator is from a Spanish-speaking country. This takes away a little for me, but is no big deal.
Another of the aspects that I liked of the collection is that Yunior, a character from Wao, features in a number of these shorts. Through them Diaz provides a fragmented but insightful backstory. Using Oscar’s terms, however, it’s a number of flashbacks instead of a Star Wars Prequel – meaning that we get glimpses of insight that appear to this read more as an accumulation of stories about someone rather than the story of someone. This may seem like a minor issue of semantics, but it is not. Let me delve into this some more as it relates to Yunior and the other characters.
The dislocating pressures wrought by migration, poverty, anomie, alienation and how they make maintaining a strong family and upright individual identity difficult is made clear and visceral through Diaz’s prose. The longing for a better life and willingness to endure painful humiliations because of it is masterfully wrought. The manner in which Diaz depicts his characters faith that once their goals are achieved happiness will be obtained is brilliant and furthered by their subsequent turn to dissatisfactions with the new conditions. These general commentaries on the fleeting nature of the preconditions to human happiness is not the issues. Neither is it the prose that I find problematic. It’s the characters themselves. As I’ve said in my review of Wao, while I am able to follow a narrator with which I don’t have a strong identification with – I am prone to be less sympathetic to them. There is very little in the way of laudable personality traits or character development in the tales and rather than showing deep insight they all seem to have a debilitating lack of self-knowledge and a blinding ignorance on to handle the issues that faces and oppresses them them.
Now after reading a work that I enjoy I typically review critical literature on it. Lacking access as I do right now to online databases I’m limited to Google, but despite this I found this article by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert. Being a Hispanic Studies and Literature scholar, she is able to comment upon feelings that the stories evoked in me with greater insight. One of the comments that relates to the above that Paravisini-Gebert made that I resonated with is on this. Comparing Diaz to another Hispanic author (that I am now interested in reading), she states the following:
“If Down These Mean Streets was a book of searing accusation against those forces in American society that con¬demned some ethnic minorities to alienation, discrimination, and disil¬lusionment, it was also a book that assumed that these conditions could be altered through political action and consciousness-raising. There is no such faith in concerted community action in Drown; there is, as a matter of fact, little semblance of a community – in the sense of groups living lives of multileveled communication with each other. There are friends and neighbors who come across each other from time to time in these tales, but they merge and separate, like the proverbial ships that pass in the night, leaving little in their wake. James Woods, in his review for the New Republic, accurately points to the stories “skillfully” catching Diaz’s characters “in their own glue of confusion, unable or unwilling to change anything.”
Now I recognize that a flawed character is part and parcel of the world and literature. A number of my favorite books – The Thief’s Journal, the characters that fill Dostoyevsky and Henry Miller’s oeuvres – as well as the sociopathic characters that I enjoy from the Golden Age of TV have such flaws. These are all, however, drawn together within a greater narrative that gives their tales some greater meaning. While this particular problem I see with the collection could be seen as a problem of art form of short stories itself, counterfactuals exist in Borges, Kafka, Tolstoy and others. Yes these character’s are all “realistic,” but just because they are real doesn’t mean they are worth of our attention. All that said, I feel in closing that I must state that despite my politico-aesthetic criticisms, the book reads well and will likely be read long into the future. I could certainly see myself, like a number of my friends that are in the creative writing profession, use this to teach style from.
Lastly, for those that want to read one of the selections gratis, I would suggest The Cheaters Guide to Love. Reading it I was taken aback at how eerily similar to some of my own experiences in my early 20s and I think it is the strongest work in the collection.