I can see a point in reading the last story in This Is How You Lose Her first. It’s the master story from which all the other stories in this collection are derived, like brilliant fictional shards.
I don’t mean that the derivation of the other stories is direct from “Cheater’s”. But the last story is the most ambitious and the most focused on the Diaz demons. “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” is the most original in form. I thought at first it was all-over-the-block. But there’s a daring attempt at synthesis at the coda. The storytelling pulls together with what looks like a wan attempt to say something positive. The imperfections in the form work in its favor, reinforcing the reader’s take.
The large story is divided into “Years” starting with “Year Zero” as in Ground Zero. Five numbered years follow…so we have six sections. Zero outlines the collapse of Yunior’s adult life. Years 1 through 5 attempt emergency reconstruction.
It’s an awkward technique that chops up the story. It’s not symmetrical and smooth. But that’s the point. Yunior’s life collapses and then he pulls himself together by fits and starts. He ends up with a more unified mess.
“Year Zero” begins with Yunior admitting that he’s cheated on the woman he reluctantly admits is his fiance and his mother’s favorite of his girlfriends. Perhaps mother’s approval damns the relationship.
Yunior has usually (always?) cheated on his girlfriends. But now he is making the move to a more adult-scale life. He is getting married. Still his betrayal behavior continues at full-tilt as if there is no difference. Flying directly in the face of his intended since she has said that the one thing she wouldn’t tolerate is infidelity. She would take a machete to him. We readers, who know who Yunior is by this time, should think this is funny.
In the “Lose Her” stories Yunior has shown an amazing capacity to document his infidelities…and leave the record out in the open. In an earlier story, a girlfriend reads about it in his diary entries. I loved Yunior’s attempted save that they were just notes for his novel.
In “Cheaters” his fiance reads emails records on his computer. There are fifty “girlfriends” on that email record, all non-deleted. In “Cheaters” there must be no delete key.
Diaz is great at the textbook attempts Yunior makes to salvage his destroyed relationship. Deleting his Facebook account, giving his girlfriend all his email passwords, hoping she will call him back, fantasizing she will call him back. Even the pathetic, listening to her voicemail and hanging up.
“Cheater’s” branches out to include a trip to the Dominican Republic to claim the out-of-wedlock son of Elvis, Yunior’s best friend. Elvis is already married and has a daughter. His wife doesn’t know about his bastard son.
There’s also the awkward aging of Yunior who is paying, perhaps, for earlier years of bodybuilding. His attempts at compulsive running and yoga lead to physical collapse. He alternately becomes obese and then sheds the weight.
His love life takes some amazingly destructive turns. Asked by a reticent girlfriend when they are going to see each other again; they have slept together for three nights and not actually had sex; he suicidally retorts…it depends when I get some ass. She deletes him within the hour from her facebook page.
Yunior’s confusion between plain fucking and loving someone continues as it has throughout this collection. He’s comically dense about this, like it’s the norm to have fifty alternative sexual contacts while you are engaged. But I knew a woman once who slept with a favorite boyfriend on the night before her wedding, as a way of saying goodbye.
Yunior is subject to intense racism in Boston both from the cops and from ordinary white citizens who throw soda cans at him and shout abuses randomly and without warning.
As soon as Yunior steps onto the Harvard campus police ask to see his ID. Yunior is a tenured professor of contemporary literature and a published writer. This raises a quirky point.
This Is How You Lose Her reads as a litany of Yunior’s dysfunction. But there’s almost no mention of Yunior’s thrilling success. From a background with subzero resources, Yunior attends college reluctantly. It seems like he’s pushed into it by a friend. He ends up as a tenured professor at Harvard and a published writer. You have to read carefully and close to glean hints of Yunior’s splendidly successful career. All you keep hearing is that he’s a major fuck-up.
The fictional attitude of the stories is: “This is how I screwed up. But I’m not talking about how I got it right.” It’s a wicked rhetorical device. All those hours of hard studying, all those brilliant grades and all those triumphant works of fiction don’t make the cut and appear on the page. The only novels he mentions in the stories are the ones he failed to pull off. What I don’t want you to see is what you end up noticing. Diaz as a writer is always throwing you a curve. Slyness is part of his charm.
During the Elvis incident, the guys visit a squalid countryside setting and Yunior’s attention is caught by impoverished kid living in a shack. Diaz writes that the child looks so bright, like someone who could end up going to MIT. Diaz is a prof at MIT. But that kid is not getting within a thousand miles of MIT.
I can close my bookseller eyes and imagine the Library of America edition of Junot Diaz. It’s coming someday. A two volume boxed set perhaps, priced at eighty dollars. Junot Diaz is an essential addition to the canon of American literature. If he’s not there quite yet, I believe that’s the trajectory.
Writers always cheat. Creating is a kind of cheating. You’re breaking the rules to create better rules. You’re making you’re own rules and then following them. You’re telling time that the rules of the clock don’t apply to you. That you’re going to tell stories that last longer than the clock can TICK.