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.
The title The Love of a Good Woman seems to imply that these stories are about the receipt of that love. Perhaps that implication comes from a male approach. It’s hard to see if this is its obvious implication. I what other context could one consider that love? More accurately, however, this collection is about a woman’s love. These stories all revolve around female leads (as Munro’s stories tend to do). They all are passionate in some way, and we watch these character learn to settle, accept, or break free regarding the confines of their love.
Aside from one epistolary story, there aren’t necessarily Munro standbys like letters or love stories filling this collection. There is a distinction to be made here. These stories are certainly about love, or at least a type of it. They are not, however, stories of falling in love. For the most part, these characters either love something they shouldn’t or can’t cope with the love that they currently feel. In the title story, Munro focuses on a nurse caring for a dying patient. While previously the nurse had always empathized, now she finds herself despising her patient. It is a type of passion that Munro explores, and she shows how this spreads across the nurse’s different relationships, the patient’s children, the patient’s husband.
These are long stories. They tend to have fronts and backs, either explicitly or implicitly. This is to say pasts and presents or futures. Of course, this isn’t something unusual in any piece of fiction, but the stories of this collection utilize them strongly. A number of stories have clear divisions. The title story, for instance, is two pieces side by side. Jakarta shows us two couples crisscrossing, and later, shows us a mismatched pair meeting later in life. Other stories, like Cortes Island or Before the Change find a heavy reliance in the past. These involve telling the past inline, interspersed throughout the narrative.
This makes these stories deeply rich with detail. Munro builds massive history inside these not-so-short short stories. Before the Change, told through a series of letters, continues to surprise. For all of the obvious plot points it must hit, it twists something else unexpected. The writer might not actually be sending the letters, that was almost a given, but we’re mistaken about what became of the writer’s pregnancy. Among Munro’s strengths is making stunning twists out of the ordinary, and she does this here. In the title story, the first half shows a group of rowdy boys and then moves into describing each of them alone with their families for dinner. It’s a stunning way to display the dramatic differences in their lives and families.
The biggest success of these stories is simply in the pace of their telling. Jakarta winds along, introducing us to two different women who connect over a shared inkling of their personalities. We’re able to distinctly see how these women and their husbands both change and overlap as they grow older. Rich as Stink builds a complex and bizarre love triangle with a young girl in the middle of it all. In this way we learn their passions and can watch them slow come to handle them. In the story The Children Stay, we’re surprised to find our lead character with another man. How she comes to deal with that in regards to her husband and children makes it so much more complex. She cannot simply leave.
The Love of a Good Woman, as a collection, succeeds not simply off the strength of its individual pieces, but through the strength of its coherency. It isn’t commonalities of craft moves or even character types that bring them together. It’s a deep focus on passion and love in women who are trying to understand it. The stories can at times go on or seem to meander, but this is in a way standard practice for Munro. On finishing each piece, however, it’s hard not to be amazed by what you’ve read.
One of the novel’s greatest strengths is its ability to span massive, massive, lengths of time. Nearly every novel that I have passionately responded to was a generational story, one that, to tell its specific narrative, required the telling of the stories of all those around them. Middlesex seems to idealize these same aspects. It has a story, and it aims to tell every corner of it that could be uncovered. At five hundred plus pages, it tells the story of Cal (née Calliope) and how he transitioned from a young girl to a grown man. Cal is our narrator, and he details to us his parents lives and his grandparents lives in an effort to explain how it all lead up to his transition.
This novel insists on telling its story chronologically. We are told about Cal’s grandparents, Cal’s parents, and finally, Cal. That may seem to be only natural, but given Cal’s position as our narrator, telling his story first would be stronger. Interspersing his parents and his grandparents story inside of the story of Calliope would be more compelling. Instead, what we are given is two generations of characters who are interesting enough. The problem lies in the fairly forced reason for having their stories told. In fact, it often sounds like the author is well aware of this. Cal admits just paragraphs into the novel, “I get a little Homeric at times,” but this is more of a cover than a legitimate confession.
Middlesex begins with the story of Desdemona and Lefty, Cal’s grandparents. They are brother and sister, and they marry. Cal pinpoints this as the reason for his genetic disorder, and it is his given reason for detailing an additional two generations behind him, to track the gene from that point to becoming active in his own body. His frequent speeches about this are deeply overwrought, “But, no matter how well trained, medical eyes couldn’t spot a recessive mutation hiding out on a fifth chromosome. Fingers couldn’t feel it. Buttonhooks couldn’t bring it to light…” (the ellipses are his, by the way). Time and again Cal repeats to us a precious little line or two about the fifth chromosome, and every time it feels utterly unnecessary and a little cheap.
The real issue here is that the story as a whole is pretty good, but moments like these cheapen the experience and reveal a lack of polish. Where was the editor to delete the final line from these indulgent paragraphs? Desdemona and Lefty transitioning from siblings to a couple is as interesting as Calliope transitioning to Cal. This is information that Cal only discovers very late into the novel, and it’s easy to imagine that Desdemona’s story would be more fulfilling if this were revealed to the reader as it was to Cal. Cal discovers this after his transition, and it’s a little burst that adds up to him. For the reader, however, we’re told almost immediately and given heavy foreshadowing even sooner. While their story is still interesting in itself, it comes off as being forced to watch an opening act before the headliner comes on.
The reader is promised the story of Calliope’s transition into Cal, but this doesn’t have the slightest hint of a beginning until halfway through the novel. It’s satisfying to finally reach its beginnings, but it in no way feels necessary to have come to it the way that we did. For this reason alone, beginning with Desdemona is difficult. We are teased with tiny snippets of Cal, a paragraph or two at the beginning of every chapter, but it’s no more than a cheap flash forward. These tricks don’t work on the reader, and the novel would be stronger with a different arrangement. The reason that the reader continues through Middlesex is that, in spite of Cal’s effective pleading with us to read his story, it’s legitimately very interesting. Desdemona’s relationship with Lefty is disturbing and scary. Their son Milton’s relationship with Tessie is charming, and it’s a wonderful version of the making it in America tale.
There are many other notes to take issue with, from unlikely turns in the narrative to Cal’s adult portion of the story deeply lacking. One ever-present instance is in Cal referring to his brother as Chapter Eleven for the entire duration of the novel. We expect an explanation eventually, but we get nothing. Our explanation comes as vague hints to a bankruptcy that it isn’t likely Chapter Eleven would even have really cared about given all that we know of his character. It’s also odd of Cal not to tell us, given his penchant for telling everything. However, these are forgivable enough. The crux of Calliope’s story revolves around her and a girl only known as the Object (after That Obscure Object of Desire - which, aside from being remarkably precious, demonstrates a massive misunderstanding of that film by either myself or Cal, or very likely both). We watch as the incredibly awkward Calliope moves through puberty, eventually taking on traditionally masculine characteristics. She slowly begins to display them in her interactions with the Object. Calliope holds her, Calliope strokes her hair. Another wonderful facet of the novel as a form is its ability to relay large amounts of information to the reader, and as Calliope begins to understand what it is that’s happening to her, we’re very nicely told about the genetics that inform the situation.
This is hardly Calliope’s story, however. We spend an equal amount of time with Cal as we do away from him. In fact, we really only get to know Calliope during a brief period as a teenager. Cal gives us a flash of himself as an adult, but there’s hardly enough information to get to know him. This makes Cal’s parents, Milton in particular, as important, if not more, than Calliope is to this broader narrative. For all of the teasing leading up to Calliope’s transition, it’s a surprisingly quick affair. On the other hand, we get to watch Milton fall in love, join the navy, start a business, start a family. They’re wildly different stories, and in ways it’s hard to say which one is better. Middlesex’s strength is that, as a whole, they’re all good pieces. The interplay between these pieces that strengthens it all comes during Calliope’s childhood. We watch all three generations exist in the same home, and in this way the novel ties these threads into a more powerful bond.
In many ways it feels as though Middlesex could have more valuably used its five hundred pages. Telling a multigenerational story is certainly no easy task however, and while the narrative here may not be as inventively told as we’ve seen elsewhere (it’s hard not to look to Díaz), it still pulls itself together, albeit a bit too blandly. The narrative itself, however, is far from bland, and its well told. Outside of Cal’s occasional overwrought indulgences, we get three incredibly different tales all related by proximity and lineage. Middlesex may leave some things to be desired, but it’s only because the faults of the novel stand out so clearly against its otherwise strong narrative.
There’s a good amount of short fiction devoted to middle America, and certainly for good reason. There’s a certain offbeat charm to the differences in everyday life. There are new rules to be explored and accepted rules that can be broken. The pieces in Ron Rash’s Chemistry and Other Stories work that middle America charm, although here it might be a bit more to the east. They aren’t as heavily entrenched in this culture as other stories, but instead tend to take them to different places. The pieces that find the best medium seem to find the most success, but this is overall a solid collection of stories.
The stories here are a mix of third and first person, and while each style works well, there are notable differences between the story types. The first person stories are generally the pieces more removed from the middle America vibe. A boy grapples with his father’s degrading mental state and new religion, a blue collar worker plays basketball with a failed NBA player he knew in high school, an academic is dared to meet someone from a personals ad, a girl becomes the new target for a knife thrower. The third person pieces are far more rooted in the culture, while these have a certain sense of removal, if not just because they have a piece removed - a carnival or a scuba diver. The first person perspective doesn’t work toward a significantly greater goal however than the third person. There isn’t necessarily a stronger knowledge of the narrator or a twist on the perspective that only first person could afford. They’re simply different means toward nearly the same end, though there’s nothing wrong with this.
The stories have a bad habit of cheating us at the start to draw us in. The finest story of the bunch, Speckled Trout, begins, “Lanny came upon the marijuana plants while fishing Caney creek.” It’s a great way to draw the reader in, but Lanny doesn’t actually find the plants for another three pages. Dangerous Love opens on, “When Ricky threw his knife and the blade tore my blouse and cut into flesh…,” but this event doesn’t actually occur until closer to the story’s end - in fact, the narrator hasn’t even met Ricky when the story actually begins. The stories by no means suffer from these movements - it can be hard to quickly draw a reader in - but as it occurs again and again, it becomes frustrating once we’ve trusted Rash to deliver us a good story, no matter where it starts.
Some stories in the collection are lighter on truly fulfilling conclusions, but even those are strong enough throughout that the experience feels worthwhile. The others however prove themselves to be taught and smart. Not Waving but Drowning takes place entirely in one room over only the course of minutes. It’s present tense and there’s a serious tension throughout the piece. Blackberries in June forgoes the above discussed tendency and opens with the beautifully atmospheric, “On those August nights when no late-afternoon thunderstorm rinsed the heat and humidity from the air, no breeze stirred the cattails and willow oak leaves, Jamie and Matt sometimes made love surrounded by water.” It takes an extremely simple idea, that these two have plans for something greater, and makes the couple make some hard decisions. The climax of The Projectionist’s Wife may involve a good deal of chance, but it’s thrilling enough of a situation to warrant it. Speckled Trout has a fantastic structure - the conclusion is inevitable, but it occurs hardly how we had imagined it might.
The collection is oddly titled. Chemistry is hardly the defining story, and its themes do not best describe the collection. Some pieces here are more compelling and more engaging than others. The lesser pieces still have strong merits, and admittedly, they’re only lesser by comparison to the rest of the collection. Each individual piece was significantly better than some of the other stories I’ve read lately. Those that do hit, however, have some great parts to them. It’s a fine collection, and it’s Rash’s third - it’ll likely be worth checking out the others as well.
Out last year by Julian Barnes, Pulse is a particularly varied collection of short stories. Barnes stories move around in era to surprising times, and elsewhere present more experimental than traditional narratives. Breaking up the collection’s front half is a series of four stories titled At Phil & Joanna’s that are all short, dialogue heavy pieces. It’s an interesting way of creating variety in what has the potential to be a tiring start and stop process of making one’s way through a collection.
There are several ways these stories go. Some, like the opening story, East Wind, progress as traditional narratives, neatly flowing along. Others, like the title story, jump back and forth between two narratives which presumably intertwine (although here they tend to grate at one another more than act as smooth compliments, even when both halves are equally strong). There are the Phil & Joanna series, and finally, there are stories where the narrator simply remembers things and connects them, such as in Complicity. Of these, the strongest are the traditional narratives in modern times. Those like the title story work well enough, and the connected thought stories are interesting to a very tangible point.
That seems to be a theme here - these stories work well enough to a point. The first story is an interesting enough love affair between two tired people. Finally, in the last several pages, we discover that the woman has had a horrid past in Berlin. It’s odd, and the puzzle (if there was on in the first place) is solved by a Google search, even though a page before it might seem like there weren’t computers around just yet. The discovery is meaningless and only works to undermine the characters and set up that Barnes has created up to that point. It’s a bizarre resolution.
The Phil & Joanna stories have a nice idea to them. They’re almost reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Slacker, but the film has many aspects that the stories don’t. For one, these stories are very sparse outside of the dialogue, and that includes dialogue tags. It’s hardly worth the effort of keeping track of who’s who. They talk about dull pop culture (the first of the series starts out with, “It was the week Hillary Clinton finally conceded.”), and they suggest tired ideas. Slacker succeeds on quickly building vibrant characters filled with vibrant thoughts. Phil & Joanna’s are dull dinner parties that think they’re a lot smarter than they are.
This too seems to be a theme here. The collection isn’t nearly as clever as it would like to be. The characters tend to be defined by stereotypical attributes. The man in Gardeners’ World is dull because all he cares about is gardening and succeeding in suburbia. As funny as Stuff White People Like may have been in 2008, reading collections like Alice Munro’s shows how deeply interesting any seemingly dull Canadian middle-aged housewife might be (although here, they’re dull middle-aged Englishmen). Another otherwise pleasant story revolves around a man who loves hiking, but in the end the emotional resolution revolves around him doing something dull and stereotypical. The story ends on, “[The application] said he could pay either by cheque or direct debit. He thought about this for a while, and chose direct debit.” While these characters actions do define them, it’s often through belittling motions like these. We’ve come to know this character and to see that he is more interesting than this, but motions like these seem to be all that Barnes is concerned with, though it serves to minimize his characters as actual people. In the title story, the narrator takes issue with his father going to an acupuncturist. The issue isn’t in his father believing in something spiritual, it’s that it’s acupuncture, and how crazy and dumb is that!
Furthering the collection’s attempted cleverness are story titles like Sleeping with John Updike, and the censoring technique used in Harmony. In Harmony, the main character’s name is censored out and written as “M———”. Other characters include Maria Theresia von P——— as well as several other von P———s, and it takes place in V——— during 177-. I have little patience for this technique anywhere, let alone this supersaturation. In the case of censoring dates (i.e. 194-), it is somewhat more understandable. The author doesn’t want to do the research, the actual date doesn’t really matter anyway, it’s more a matter of time period. But there’s no reason to not have an exact date. The oddity of the censor mark is likely more distracting to a far greater number of people than an erroneous date might be to those who it may cause to search for inconsistencies. Do a little research - and anyway, isn’t that what an editor is for? When it comes to names, it seems as though this technique would be acceptable should the content being printed be so scandalous as to be inappropriate to attribute (…even though this is fiction). But we’ve seen Salvador Dali and The Beatles all used as characters, and so it’s hard to imagine that it’s an issue of rights or propriety. Instead, for an entire story, we have to read about M———. It’s irritating, distracting, and intolerable.
There are a good number of pieces here that are solid at their core. Barnes has over a dozen other titles (which I am not familiar with), and so perhaps this was only an experiment in style, in playing with this sense of hypermodernity. Unfortunately, these flares that the stories ultimately rely on only serve to lessen their impact. Elsewhere, like in the Phil & Joanna stories, there is a fine idea that falls utterly flat. Unfortunately, these stories’ tendencies to mock their characters for partaking in the mundane serves to destroy all humanity built within them. At times they seem like real people. In the end they might still be, but we weren’t given the proper chance to understand them.