Junot Diaz does not publish a book every third year, which is what the literary rat race gets many writers to do. This is not necessarily good or bad, though Diaz has gone on record urging writers to slow down. After all, having won a well-deserved Pulitzer with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Diaz can afford to publish at his own pace. But, if he had less talent, the fleeting years would add up to what is sometimes called a ‘writer’s block’. Fortunately, that is not the case with Diaz: his third book, published five years after the last one, has been well worth the wait.
At its simplest, Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her is a collection of funny and heart-rending stories, each one about love, or rather about lovers and relationships. The brutal humanity of the relationships as they form, flounder and fail is communicated in a language that Diaz had already mastered in his first collection, Drown. The women and men who come across in the stories—the artistic Alma, the older Miss Lora—are communicated with a force and economy that many acclaimed Indian English writers could learn from. But that is only a simple version of what happens in this collection.
As one reads on, one discovers that each story revolves around the pivot of Yunior: he is either the narrator or he is narrated in the third person. Some of the stories even have a second person narrator—‘you’—addressing not the reader or a protagonist, which has mostly been the case with the rare use of such a narrator, but working out a kind of reflexive voice, a voice that seems to be addressing Yunior from within. This is just another instance of Diaz’s unobtrusive craft.
Slowly, from various perspectives (including Yunior’s, across time), another large narrative starts emerging. As the specific stories tell about the relationships of Yunior (and sometimes, through Yunior’s longings, those of his older brother, Rafa), behind them Diaz manages to etch the tale of Yunior’s family. Almost incidentally, we get to know—as recollection—Yunior’s tyrannical father, who abandoned them early after bringing his family over to the US from the Dominican Republic, Yunior’s mother and her struggles, as well as Rafa, Yunior’s philandering brother who dies angrily of cancer. This is a brilliant way to return to a complex ‘immigrant’ narrative—mostly done to death in recent years. The ‘love stories’ focus the larger narrative artistically and slant it away from the ‘semi-autobiographical’ that immigrant stories mostly get bogged down in, even when they are magical realist. Diaz does not need magical realism, by the way: his world is powerful enough to come across on its own.
To fall in and out of love is tough. To write about falling in and out of love is tougher. But when the vicissitudes of love are used to explore a larger (and just as rich/fraught) experience of growing up in a particular milieu, well, then, all you can do is admire the skill of the author. Add to it an electrifying idiom, powerful and convincing characters, dark humour, nuanced writing and a narrative that moves like a thriller—and you wish Diaz would join the rat race to publish every third year.