Since the narrator of the first story in the Diaz collection, This is How You Lose Her starts off “I’m not a bad guy.” you assume he is. It’s like saying “I’m not a crook.”.
He has damaged his relationship with Magda by sleeping with another woman. The justification for the infidelity is delicious: “this chic who had tons of eighties freestyle hair.” He’s just describing the object of his flirtation but it’s as if the other woman’s hair is the reason for betraying Magda. I know when you explain a joke, it’s not funny. But Diaz wants his first person narrator undermined; and then he wants you to like him. It’s a one-two writer’s punch.
After a period in the deep freeze, he feels his relationship to Magda has revived. But the seeds of destruction have been planted. Magda is slowly detaching herself from the relationship like an iceberg that breaks off from a glacier, slowly at first with ominous crunching sounds before the sudden break into the open sea.
He bribes Magda to stay with him by improving the venues of their dates. Instead of the bedrock cheapness of hanging out with his acid-tinged friends; they go to the movies. You sense this is a cultural leap up for the couple, a quality date. They even go to the theater.
At the performance, he takes Magda’s picture with “some bigwig black playwrights”. Magda is smiling so much that “her wide-ass mouth was going to unhinge”. What an amazing mixture of anatomy that phrase contains! Diaz prose is the crispest, liveliest, most dead-assed funny that I’ve read. Lively in the sense of possessing a mercurial intelligence in the creation of word riots. That’s a risky kind of writing. The reader could get bored with overbearing shtick like you’ve been trapped in an old Jerry Lewis movie. That doesn’t happen here but maybe I wish that Diaz didn’t want to entertain me so much.
Magda is being bribed into staying in the relationship and she knows it. It’s sublime how Diaz notes through atomic features of the social compact that Magda is methodically pulling away. Features of the relationship that are so small and delicate that you can explain them away if you’re a guy in denial. Like Magda never used to tell him to call her back. If he called, it was always the other person who was put on hold. Now he is asked to call back, to wait, to be deferred.
But if you’re the guy and that’s too subtle for you, how about Magda radically changing her hairstyle, buying new outfits and going out dancing with her friends on Friday night? It’s funny when the paranoia turns out to be real. Magda is bailing out of the relationship while her boyfriend is still in the room.
“The Sun, the Moon and the Stars” is structured with a big set-piece cantilevered into the end of it to serve as a satisfying conclusion. In better days the couple had planned on a trip to Santo Domingo. Now Magda is stalling on going, acting like it’s too much of a commitment. So he goes ahead and buys the tickets anyway, forcing the issue. The account of the trip, which totals the relationship, is a masterful piece of writing. Reading it is like enjoying the spectacle of a train wreck without feeling guilty about it.
There’s this ambiguity I’m left with. When you write as a first person character, you put on a mask and ask your readers to believe that the mask is for real. But Diaz only puts the mask on halfway. His narrator is so perceptive that you are left wondering why he didn’t see it coming. The character is almost as clever as Diaz but you are asked not to drop your suspension of disbelief in the showtime of the story. The greatest stories play with ambiguity this way. Look at the logic of the narration up close, and you can see deep fissures in that logic. That’s part of the art, like the crack in a old Japanese teapot that makes it more cherished.
I thought I was being presented with Diaz and not a believable character. I did a rethink this way: Suppose the narrator really wanted to get rid of his girlfriend but didn’t want to admit it to himself? Suppose in a sense he knew that he wanted to lose her? When I thought of the story that way, the character came back into focus.
Is my interpretation justified? That’s the sort of question that would cause a book club to run overtime. The truth lies somewhere in the reading of the story.