It’s been a long time since Junot Díaz’s stories were collected. His first collection, Drown, was published in 1996, and though you’d stumble across one of Díaz’s stories in Best Of collections every so often, it was clear that he had only published so many in the time being. Still, with those stories floating out there, it was hard not to want to see them in some easily attainable form. Of the nine stories in This is How You Lose Her, five were published throughout 1998 and 1999, and the rest were published much more recently, three in The New Yorker just these past several months. The tone here is different than that of Drown, but surprisingly, for stories written so far apart, there is a clear and constant theme here that speaks to Díaz’s continued interest in heritage and belonging.
This collection’s opening story, The Sun, the Moon, the Stars, is the earliest written piece, and best illustrates Díaz’s style in his previous collection and novel. “[Magda] considers me the typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole.” Díaz’s characters are charmingly dislikable. They have their faults, but they’re always working to fix them. This type of lingual flare is more than common. Díaz throws in Spanish for flavor. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know what the word means - it’s all about how it sounds. Still, context is enough, whether it’s a single word or an entire sentence. We always know what his characters are talking about when they switch languages. The narrator, as with perhaps every man in Díaz’s stories, has cheated on his partner. “Magda only found out because homegirl wrote her a fucking letter. And the letter had details. Shit you wouldn’t even tell your boys drunk.” Unsurprisingly, not a lot of writers can pull off phrases like “homegirl” and “fucking letter,” but Díaz owns his character’s voices. In addition to the flavor of another language, we get this type of slang and youthful eccentricity.
Of course, Díaz is particularly good with this voice because it is the voice of his frequently recurring narrator, Yunior. We found Yunior scattered throughout Drown, Díaz’s debut collection, and as the narrator of his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. For all the popularity that connected story collections seem to gather, I find that a recurring narrator can often be a turn off, be it from stories too similar to one another, or simply a dull or indistinct narrator. Díaz finds none of these problems. In fact, Yunior’s recurrence is a strength. We find his name tucked deep inside many of these stories. The narrator is anonymous until suddenly a character says, “I’m just saying, Yunior,” and we realize that this is another chapter in the life of someone who we’ve come to know so well. These stories in no way rely on their connection, but as a treat for those following along as Díaz publishes, he gives us this new context on the events. It works too within the collection. We care deeply for Yunior.
In Drown, Yunior narrates a significant number of the stories. In fact, in This is How You Lose Her’s final story, Díaz even seems to retroactively clarify that Yunior is the narrator of Edison, New Jersey, a story which appears to have an otherwise anonymous narrator. In this collection, Yunior is our narrator for all but one piece. Díaz gives them to us in many varied ways, however. Two stories find a numbering technique that Díaz has previously employed. Story sections are number sequentially, and though the effect may be minor and unconscious, we feel this tiny jerk forward each time the number changes. Three stories have a second person perspective - the final two stories, Miss Lora and The Cheater’s Guide to Love, are written speaking directly to Yunior. An earlier story, Flaca, finds a pseudo-second person of Yunior speaking directly to a woman he calls Flaca. This ought to be tiring, but, particularly as demonstrated by the final two stories, the deep specifics make it all feel like a very tight third person rather than some cheap perspective shifting to make us feel something for a character who we aren’t actually that near to.
The question arises then as to why the story Otravida, Otravez is included here. The story is told from the perspective of a female narrator, who is, presumably, dating Yunior’s father Ramón during his time in the US before bring over Yunior and his brother and mother. Though one can imagine that this is the case after some consideration of the story (and a reference to Drown, which, in its final story, names Yunior’s father as Ramón) there aren’t enough context clues to really clarify this. It is by no means a weaker story than the rest, but it feels out of place beside them. It works thematically, however. The stories in This is How You Lose Her continually describe the difficulties of an immigrant family in the United States. We never feel this so explicitly, these seem only like normal people living in New Jersey, but these troubles recur and echo throughout their lives. They can’t seem to escape from the Dominican Republic, and even for all of the problems it causes them, they don’t want to. Otravida, Otravez shows Ramón struggling to become a homeowner while the narrator continues to adjust to life in the United States. The narrator interacts with young girls who have just come over, and watches them each make the same mistakes. This all works well with This is How You Lose Her’s broader themes, but, without other non-Yunior stories to flesh out this world, Otravida, Otravez feels in some ways misplaced in this collection.
Díaz’s stories have always had variety, and while that is still true in this collection, there is a bizarre commonality in their bases. Aside from Invierno, which finds Yunior as a child, each one of these stories is ‘about’ a specific love interest. Certainly we learn great deals from relationships, both good and bad ones, but it’s a little surprising the way that all of Yunior’s stories seem to be based on his or his brother or his father’s relation to a specific woman. Of course, this works to build the notions that Díaz frequently repeats (again, “[Magda] considers me the typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole.”), and Yunior often finds himself fighting against doing the same foul things that his brother and father did. Still, it’s odd to see this type of movement repeated across every story. The stories are even named after the specific woman much of the time, Nilda, Alma, Flaca, Miss Lora, and Pura in The Pura Principle.
In some ways, these stories are less powerful than some in Drown, which managed to paint such odd, vibrant worlds. This is How You Lose Her, rather than creating these moments of clarity and understanding, work more toward an exploration of difficult periods of Yunior’s life. Díaz jumps around in time to points where Yunior’s brother is either dying from cancer, still coming to understand the disease, or has already passed away, and Yunior is always trying to come to terms with this. As we feel with Yunior’s recurrence, his brother Rafa’s recurrence is powerful. We learn a great deal about him, and watching this unfold across several stories is effective. We don’t need to see every piece - Yunior’s relationship to whatever point that Rafa has reached is enough.
Díaz is without a doubt one of the strongest writers working today. It may take him a good deal of time to finish these pieces, but the consistency he brings is impressive. These may not all be his best stories, but they range only from stunning to good, never any worse. It was easier to see the purpose behind some of the stories in Drown after reading Díaz’s novel - we could see him learning techniques, creating vast histories. Perhaps after another novel there will be more clarity here. For now though, we’re only left wondering when we’ll next see Yunior and where it is that he’ll be.