Read More! is a year long series where I will be attempting to read more books than I normally in the span of a year. I usually peter out around the late twenties to mid thirties. My goal is at least fifty two this year. I probably won’t make it. Nonetheless, Junot Díaz‘s This Is How You Lose Her is my first book of 2015.
Whenever I read Junot Díaz’s work, I feel the need to read it aloud. The cadence of his words demands to be performed, to be exalted with the entire flourish they exude. This Is How You Lose Her is no different. It rings with the same beautiful code switching tune as Díaz’s previous works. This collection of stories places most of its focus over on Díaz’s greatest creation, Yunior de Las Casas. Only the aptly named “Otravida, Otravez” looks outside of Yunior’s world. This Is How You Lose Her is a catalog of Yunior’s unfortunate dealings with women and his losses that revolve around them.
The obvious theme of relationships ending comes through immediately in the books title. Every story has a hint of infidelity; that is the This of the book. Whether Yunior as aworld class hound, jumping on anything that moves, his brother an older more salcious version of Yunoir, or their father who leaves them in the car while he does his deed. The book wallows in these actions leaving no doubt to Yunior’s ways as his cheating numbers rank in the fifties (!) during a single relationship(!!). Díaz manages to recount these terrible and pretty despicable actions with ever making them sound tiresome. Even with all the deception and plain shitty treatment of women, Yunior remains a sympathic, hell even empathetic, character.
The reasons for this positive attachment to Yunior and the other cheaters is the losses running amidst the obvious. Its the constantly failing search for identity and status brought on by their actions that that hits hardest to me. It may seem after a few pages that this book is only about jerks trying to get their dicks wet, but elements of self-worth, immigration, race, and understanding of one’s self are all floating around them. These themes may be subtle in the sense that they aren’t the main issue at hand, but there existence is undeniable and affects the stories immensely.
It could be easy to ignore the elements of diaspora, especially if you haven’t experience it. I personally haven’t gone through that specific hardship (I was born in the US to moderately adjusted/naturalized immigrants), but I experience enough similar trials that couldn’t help but relate to the exclusionary status Yunior is subjected to. Díaz has a way of relating the immigrant experience, one he went through, without pandering or devaluing it to make it easier for other to understand. He somehow makes the pain universal and it hurts.
“Invierno” places those feeling at the forefront of the story. Yunior, Rafa and their mother are emotionally, verbally, and physically isolated from their new homeland, tramped in inside by a lingering winter and the patriarch’s insistence. Díaz plays with the little instances of despair and isolation, like never leaving the house and not having anyone to speak with, adding them all up until they boil over. No matter how much they try, whether it be their Mami’s attempts to learn English or Yunior’s attempt to connect with his neighbors, their a harsh shock that acceptance is much farther away than back in the Dominican Republic.
While the initial struggles of immigration are difficult, it’s Yunior’s attempt to bridge his upbringing and his eventual intellectualism that most affected me. Throughout the short stories there are super heady literature references made by Yunior that are intermingled with Spanish slang, proper mannerism shadowed by sly philandering. His is so smart and yet he is bereft of knowledge when it comes to love and companionship. It creates a severe discord in the character’s identity and personality. He lives two lives that can’t be separated. They simply can’t stop interacting with one another.
“The Cheater’s Guide to Love” emphasizes this theme greatly. Díaz shows Yunior, now a struggling professor in Boston, over the course of five years as he desperately tries to recover from his previous relationship. He battles with unabashed racism in the city, ignorance from his friends, and isolation brought on by himself. During one sequence, a white girl at the half Bikram yoga center he goes to tries to talk to him. This instance is merely a paragraph in the thirty plus page story, but its quick and damning reflection on Yunior. “What the hell are you going to do with a blanquita?” is more revelatory of Yunior’s self-worth than of the value of the small white girl’s. It brings in his lowly estimation of everything he’s about: his idiotic cheating, his heritage, his intellect, his status.
Some of the relatability comes through Díaz’s presentation of a few stories with a second person narrative. Whenever I see a story written in that perspective I gravitate towards it. Second persons stories, when done well, are often my favorites. “Alma”, “Miss Lora”, and “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” place you as Yunior living out his pratfalls while “Flaca” positions you as one the long line of girls in Yunior’s life. “Alma” and “Flaca” are shorter and more digestible, making the second person structure shine. But “Miss Lora” and “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” are two of the longer stories and they still carry the POV with a delicate grace. Never did I get the impression it was being used as a gimmick or flash. The stories stand on their own and bring you deeply into the life at hand, making you feel every hit, every breakup, and every shitty thing Yunior and you do.
The deluxe edition that I read was designed by Helen Yentus and Claire Vaccaro and features art by incredible Jamie Hernandez. The look of the book is impeccable, with Hernandez’s panel work lining the inside of book and his full page art pieces that stand as dividers between the short stories. The illustrations reference these little moments in the character’s lives, somehow becoming single depictions of the entire story. They encompass the emotions of Díaz’s work in one carefully imagined image.
Hernandez’s work seems simplistic in nature, but he does more with a single line than most artists can in a thousand. Hernandez has this amazing ability of capturing years of pain and experience in a single wrinkle. There is deep emotional center to his minimalistic approach that really stands out. The juxtaposition with Díaz’s stories enhances both mediums, truly saying more about each other than they could alone. His participation in this collection is a perfect match. (Side note: Jamie Hernandez is easily one of my favorite illustrators. If you are unfamiliar with Hernandez’s works, you need to get your hands on any of the Love and Rockets collections that he and his brothers Gilbert and Mario created. You’d be hard pressed to find a more emotionally satisfying sequential art story than the ones they have been making over the past thirty plus years.)
I can’t recommend this book enough. There are moments were you may feel that Yunior’s shortcomings are one note of a never-ending song, but try to fight it. Look past it. Focus on how he deals with the losses, of the women, of himself. That is where his real downfall lies. It’ll hurt, but it will be worth it.