Once or twice every year, a collection of short stories is published to such critical acclaim that my own lukewarm reaction to it makes me wonder if I know what the hell I am talking about here.
Last year, it was Don Delillo’s The Angel Esmeralda, which got rave reviews and was nominated for several awards, although I felt it was self-indulgent and showed no understanding of the uniqueness of the short story form. This year, it was Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, a collection of slick, O. Henry-type trick pieces, but which critics loved and which won the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award.
When I found out a few months ago that a new collection of Junot Diaz stories was due out, I decided not to buy it. I did not like the stories in his first collection, Drown, although the critics fell all over themselves praising Diaz’s depiction of the “hardscrabble” (their word) world of Dominican immigrants and Diaz’s “streetwise” (their word) language.
This was the awed opening paragraph of a San Francisco Chronicle interview story on Junot Diaz in September 1996 after the publication of Drown: “Junot Diaz couldn’t read or write Spanish, let alone English, when he came to this country from the Dominican Republic at age 7. Today he’s being hailed as a major new voice in American literature.”
Named one of Newsweek’s “new faces of 1996,” (a face that publicity photos showed grin-glowering under a shaved head), Diaz got a six-figure contract for his first collection Drown and promised to write a novel. Alan Cheuse, chair of the committee that chose Diaz for the Pen/Malamud Award that year explained, that Diaz wrote about material no one had really focused on before: “the Dominican-American way of looking at things.” The Boston Review called Diaz one of the very first serious chroniclers of the Dominican Diaspora in English-language fiction. Introducing a slice of heretofore-unrevealed life to most American readers.
Six years later, The Boston Globe announced crisply “Then—nothing.” Diaz said he couldn’t write, that he did not feel natural anymore. It took five more years for his first novel to be published, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I listened to all of Oscar Wao--for which Diaz won the Pulitzer--on my Ipod while walking my dog in my safe, white, middle-class neighborhood, and decided that Diaz’s voice and talent for narrative expanse made him a better novelist than a short story writer. Fine, let him write novels about Yunior and his “hardscrabble streetwise” life and leave the short story to others.
Then short pieces of fiction started to appear in The New Yorker. I read them, but I thought they were chapters of still another novel about Yunior. So when I saw that a new collection of short stories was due out, I decided to ignore it. But recently Diaz won one of the MacArthur, so-called “genius,” awards, and This is How You Lose Her was nominated for the National Book Award.
As a life-long fan of the short story—a guy who has read and written about so many stories over the past fifty years that he is supposed to know something about the form and writes about it on a blog, I had no choice. I downloaded the book and set about trying to figure out why critics think this guy is so great.
Although I had already read most of these stories when they appeared in The New Yorker, I read them all again, shook my head in disbelief, and tossed the book aside to ponder the mysteries of critical opinion. I have been pondering for the past two weeks, and—given my determination to read short stories at least twice—I am reading them again, trying to reserve judgment. After all, when I was teaching, I always encouraged my students to “do the research” after having read stories at least once—listen to what other readers/reviewers had to say—then make a considered analysis.
Maybe I missed something. Maybe I was biased in some way. Maybe I was exercising some personal preference rather than critical judgment. So, I did my usual Internet Lexis-Nexis search to see if the many superlatives in the reviews were actually justified or just the result of reviewer reverence for immigrant fiction.
Carmen Gimenez Smith on National Public Radio says that one of the greatest appeals of Diaz’s work is his ability to balance the “less palatable qualities” of his characters—cruelty, abuse, and infidelity. Similarly, Sanjena Sathian, in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, says that each of his stories evokes an empathy with the narrator, although the narrator is not the type of person most readers want to like. I think that is true. Yunior is (to use Diaz’s language) fucked up, but in a way that may not be as simple as it first appears. Sarah Hall says in The Guardian that Diaz has the ability to spend 200 pages on Junior as the perpetuator of unforgivable crimes and in the end making his sorrow and sorrowfulness our own.
Smith also says that This is How You Lose Her is a major contribution to the short story form, for it exemplifies Diaz’s minimalist and voice-driven writing. Other critics point to Diaz’s maximalist style. Sam Anderson in The New York Times says Diaz’s work is characterized by a “kind of radical inclusiveness. My own opinion is that what seems “short-story-like” in Diaz’s often rambling novelistic inclusiveness is a dependence on rhythm, rather than plot, and a movement toward a conventional metaphoric short story type ending.
It seems to me that Diaz appeals to the still trendy focus on multicultural, social, immigrant issues among critics. Carmen Gimenez Smith says that Diaz deals with the “complicated particulars of cultural exile, of want and of the bravado that is born of fear.” And Leah Hager Cohen in The New York Times says that Diaz’s signature subject is “what it means to belong to Diaspora, to live out the possibilities and ambiguities of perpetual insider-outsider status. “Invierno” is singled out as a favorite by several reviewers because of its focus on the conventional immigrant experience.
However, in spite of their desire to justify Diaz’s work as being a contribution to immigrant fiction, reviewers cannot help but be most attracted to his prose style. Cohen calls Diaz’s idiom so “electrifying” that it is practically an act of aggression, describing his rhythm as “a syncopated stagger-step between opacity and transparency, exclusion and inclusion, defiance and desire.” Claire Lowdon in The Observer has suggested that whereas in Drown, Diaz’s voice was not fully formed, “nervous of its own newness,” but in this second collection he has refined Yunior’s voice “into an utterly convincing idiolect that takes in delicate literary detail and tough bilingual argot.” Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times calls him “one of the most distinctive and magnetic voices in contemporary fiction: limber, streetwise, caffeinated and wonderfully electric.”
No one goes as far as Sukhdev Sadhu in The Telegraph¸ who exults that this collection is so “sharp, so bawdy, so raw with emotion, and so steeped in the lingo and rhythms of working class Latino life that it makes most writing that crosses the Atlantic seem hopelessly desiccated by comparison.”
My favorite story in the collection is the first one, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars”—partially because I think it best embodies the typical Yunior voice—clever lines and lyrical descriptions with a bit of street talk and some educated academic language interspersed, but not the gratuitously coarse language of some of the other stories. Sometimes, it seems as if Diaz wants to write a lyrical realistic story but gets pulled back to the “voice.” For example, when he and his girl go to the DR, we hear this confession:
“If this were another kind of story, I’d tell you about the sea. What it looks like after it’s been forced into the sky through a blowhole. How when I’m driving in from the airport and see it like this, like shredded silver.” “And I’d tell you about the traffic…a cosmology of battered cars…” “But that would make it another kind of story, and I’m having enough trouble with this one as it is.”
His deft combining of the coarse and the academic is obviously appeal to many readers:
“And she’ll turn her head, which is her way of saying, I’m too proud to acquiesce openly to your animal desires, but if you continue to put your finger in me I won’t stop you.”
“Every fifty feet there’s at least one Eurofuck beached out on a towel like some scary pale monster that the sea’s vomited up. They look like philosophy professors, like budget Foucaults, and too many of them are in the company of a dark-assed Dominican girl.”
Diaz sprinkles enough clever sentences throughout the story to keep one looking for them, and smiling when they are found:
“You know how it is. A smelly bone like that, better off buried in the backyard of your life.”
“She treats me like I ate somebody’s favorite kid.”
She is “short with a big mouth and big hips and dark curly hair you could lose a hand in.”
“She’s sensitive, too. Takes to hurt the way paper takes to water.”
“Magda gets to her feet and walks stiff-legged toward the water. She’s got a half-moon of sand stuck to her butt. A total fucking heartbreak.”
“It’s a thousand degrees out and the mosquitoes hum like they’re about to inherit the earth.”
“Our relationship wasn’t the sun, the moon, and the stars, but it wasn’t bullshit either.”
The final epiphany in the story comes when Yunior is taken by a man called The Vice President and his bodyguard Barbaro to the Cave of the Jagua. When they hold him by his ankles and lower him into the hole, he recognizes that it is an epiphany: “This is the perfect place for insight, for a person to become somebody better.” He cries and they pull him up and call him a pussy. The story ends when he gets back to their bungalow and Magda is packing to go home. “I sat down next to her. Took her hand. This can work, I said. All we have to do is try.” It is a plaintive cry that will echo throughout the stories.
Two stories focus on Yunior’s brother, Rafa, who is dying of cancer. In “Nilda,” Rafa is described this way: “You should have seen him in those days: he had the face bones of a saint.” Rafa was boxing then and “was cut up like crazy, the muscles on his chest and abdomen so striated they looked like something out of a Frazetta drawing.”
Yunior describes himself this way: “I had an IQ that would have broken you in two but I would have traded it in for a halfway decent face in a second.” He says girls start to notice him and in another universe he would probably be OK, “ended up with mad novias and jobs and a sea of love in which to swim, but in this world I had a brother who was dying of cancer and a long dark patch of life like a mile of black ice waiting for me up ahead.”
In “The Pura Principle,” when Rafa is dying, Yunior is 17. “Dude had lost eighty pounds from the chemo, looked like a break-dancing ghoul.” This story is one of the weakest of the Yunior stories, for it rambles about too much, lacks focus, depends too much on Junior’s tough-talking reaction to Rafa dying, and ends weakly.
“Alma,” the shortest story, whose final line gives the book its title--“This is how you lose her”--is told in second person by Yunior, who has a girlfriend with a “big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans. An ass that could drag the moon out of orbit.”
When she finds his journal, he says he is “overwhelmed with pelagic sadness.” I confess I had to look it up. Does he mean pelagic, meaning relating to the open sea,or Pelagian, relating to the British/Irish monk who denied the doctrine of original sin in 418?
Several reviewers single out “Invierno,” the most traditional immigrant story in the book, as a favorite. It deals with a very young Yunior and his mother and brother being first brought to American by his philandering and often cruel father, who often takes him on his pussy runs. “A father is a hard thing to compass,” says Yunior. His father gets the boy’s head shaved and he has to wear a Christmas hat around the apartment to keep warm, making him look like an “unhappy tropical elf.”
At the end of the story, Yunior’s homesick and lonely mother takes them out in the snow for a Joycean ending with a Diaz twist as they look over the landfill toward the ocean. As the mother weeps, they throw snowballs at the “sliding cars and once I removed my cap just to feel the snowflakes scatter across my cold, hard scalp.”
In another second person story, “Miss Lora,” a year has passed since Rafa’s death, and (dropping another one of those dictionary words) Yunior says he feels a fulgurating sadness. (You look it up.). Yunior is 16 and at his most strutting, street-talking self, describing the older, teacher he has sex with this way: “chick was just wiry like a motherfucker, every single fiber standing out in outlandish definition. Bitch made Iggy Pop look chub.”
The final story,” The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” is a kind of compendium of what has gone before. Yunior is grown up now, but not quite--a professor and a writer, fraught with tenure madness and the pressure of “the book” he is trying to write. The story is one of the weakest in the collection, for it seems artificially constructed and flawed by easy, clichéd phrases, e.g.
“Like someone flew a plane into your soul. Like someone flew two planes into your soul.”
He makes it through the semester. “You ain’t your old self (har-har!)
“The rest of the semester ends up being a super-duper clusterfuck.”
“You want to move on, to exorcise shit.”
We leave him, pondering his folder (a kind of binder of women) which contains copies of all the e-mails and fotos from his cheating days, the one his ex found and mailed to him with this postscript: “Dear Yunior, for your next book.”
The “next book”--which we assume is this book--ends not with a bang, but a whimper:
“That’s about it. In the months that follow you bend to the work, because it feels like hope, like grace—and because you know in your lying cheater’s heart that sometimes a start is all we ever get.”