What to make of a character who describes a woman like this?
OK, for the record, I didn’t think Pura was so bad, she was a hell of a lot better than most of the ho’s my brother had brought around. Guapísima as hell: tall and indiecita, with huge feet and 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.
This is the voice of Yunior, the narrator and protagonist of most of Junot Díaz’s new short story collection “This Is How You Lose Her” (he also shows up in Díaz’s previous books “Drown” and “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”). Yunior’s very interested in describing women in such ways (also: “a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans”), and one of the collection’s themes is the misery that comes from his objectification and poor treatment of women.
This is difficult terrain for even the best writers. Díaz navigates it well, for at least about half this collection, thanks to his acute eye for the seemingly unimportant but terribly significant moments that seem to define relationships—or at any rate are a good proxy in fiction for the larger forces that define them in real life. The strongest story here, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” which opens the book, follows the failure of Yunior’s relationship with a woman named Magda. Here the two are in the midst of trying to rebuild their relationship after Magda—surprise!—discovers that Yunior’s cheated on her:
Slowly, almost imperceptibly my Magda started turning into another Magda. Who didn’t want to sleep over as much or scratch my back when I asked her to. Amazing what you notice. Like how she never used to ask me to call back when she was on the line with somebody else… So of course I blamed all that shit on her girls, who I knew for a fact were still feeding her a bad line about me.
This is a wonderful passage because we know what Yunior’s talking about. We know the frustration of an inescapable drift apart and we know that furious need to blame it on someone other than ourselves. And by the story’s end we, too, are rooting for the relationship even as we see that it’s doomed. This is no small feat: this, like much great fiction, draws on the reader’s somewhat contradictory simultaneous closeness to and distance from characters. We are at once right with Yunior, feeling his pain, and crucially removed, able to see his flaws and failures. This is also true of the other bravura story here, “Invierno,” which tells of Yunior’s family moving to New Jersey from the Dominican Republic.
Díaz accomplishes the closeness/distance effect primarily with a single tool: Yunior’s voice. Yunior mixes linguistic registers (as well as English and Spanish ) to great effect, capturing a sort of compelling tonal aggression, and so his voice is certainly distinctive. But that same voice is also, in a way, Díaz’s undoing: all too often it feels like a writer’s precious creation, affected and calculated. Take the first passage I quoted. Would a character who knows the word “pulchritude” really write “better than most of the ho’s”? This is a minor example, but it’s indicative of a fairly large problem. Díaz gives Yunior a history to explain this: his father brings his family to New Jersey from the Dominican Republic when he’s little; he grows up poor and nerdy; he eventually does well as a writer and ends up a professor in Boston. But the voice still doesn’t quite ring true.
And so as the book goes on Yunior’s voice gets tiresome—particularly since it becomes dismayingly clear that Díaz can’t or won’t really do anything else. The one story here that doesn’t involve Yunior, “Otravida, Otravez,” centers on the romantic and just general life struggles of an immigrant woman, Yasmin, who also narrates. Though Díaz does a good job capturing the weltschmerz of mindless routines repeated too often (Yasmin’s job doing hospital laundry and her sleepovers with an industrial baker named Ramón), Yasmin’s narrating voice is precious in the extreme and gives off a distinctly unpleasant Very Serious Writer feeling, e.g.
Ana Iris once asked me if I loved him and I told her about the lights in my old home in the capital, how they flickered and you never knew if they would go out or not. You put down your things and you waited and you couldn’t do anything really until the lights decided. This, I told her, is how I feel.
This is what a pretentious prose stylist sounds like. It’s not how characters, or, rather, people, think or talk. Whereas Yunior’s voice rang false in subtle ways that sometimes I could willfully overlook, this entire story feels hollow—Díaz’s writing upstages his acute observation and renders the story trivial.
There is a good explanation for Díaz’s greater success with Yunior’s voice. I heard Díaz read in Philadelphia on Saturday, and there it was apparent that Yunior’s voice is also his own. When Díaz took questions, he spoke with many of Yunior’s tics: lots of profanity, slightly drawn-out descriptions, mixed registers, etc. On stage, as in the writing, it felt at certain moments like a bit of a front, a calculated persona, a defense. Díaz seemed intent on reminding his audience that he’s an immigrant, that he was once poor, that he’s now an acclaimed writer.
Díaz also talked a bit about his own history, which unsurprisingly turns out to be rather similar to Yunior’s: Díaz, too, grew up in the Dominican Republic and then New Jersey; he, too, was a bit of a nerd; he, too, has ended up as a college professor (at MIT). Naturally this adds lots of intrigue to the stories in the book. Now I can’t help but wonder whether all of the failed relationships Díaz writes of were his own (at the reading he did say, “You don’t want to ask me for relationship advice”), whether he tends to treat women badly, whether he had a really terrible childhood.
This fascination is admittedly more than a bit lurid, but it’s also natural and somehow it gives “This Is How You Lose Her” a lot more weight. Because for all Díaz’s smart observation and solid writing, his verbal acrobatics—whether they be Yunior’s or, worse, Yasmin’s—all too often keep it somehow distant, and I’m apt to want to connect it with something that feels much realer. Perhaps it’s time for Díaz to find a less showy voice, a voice that’s just honest.