(Faber, 2012); pbk £ 12.99.
For readers familiar with Drown, Díaz’s earlier story collection, This Is How You Lose Her will be welcomed as a sequel of sorts. For those new to the author, this book shows he clearly deserves his place as one of America’s best, though not amongst its most prolific, writers. The book shares some similarities with Drown, and though it can be read as a stand-alone volume, it also benefits from comparison with its predecessor.
This Is How You Lose Her brings back Yunior, a young Dominican immigrant whom we first met in Drown, and who also appeared in Díaz’s only novel to date, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. In Drown, Yunior was the little brother, in awe of the older, more street-wise Rafa. Here, Rafa dies of cancer early on in the book, and Yunior has to discover for himself how to be a Dominican, how to be an American, how to behave around women, and finally how to find his voice and his place in the world. As in Drown, the stories in this volume do not follow a chronological order. We go back and forth, catching glimpses of Yunior and his family at various stages of his childhood and early adulthood. Although Yunior remains the main focus of the book, he is not its sole narrator. Some stories are narrated in the first person, some in the second, and others in the third. The fragmentation of time and multiplicity of points of view tie in with the issues of identity and immigration that Díaz explores. At the same time, the failure of the story to cohere is also reflective of Yunior’s own sense of incoherence. We see Yunior striving to find a voice: sometimes he comes across as eloquent and educated; at other times, he speaks like one of the poor and the dispossessed that Díaz often writes about. The change of register in Yunior’s speech perfectly captures both the sense of in-betweenness the character feels, and the lazy stereotypes that readers may bring to the text. How can the same person describe his girlfriend as “a nerd” who is always “cutting shit out for me from the newspapers”, and then also complain that “she Bartlebys me”, making a witty reference to Herman Melville’s scrivener? Beneath the sexist, macho posturing, we see a gentler, more reflective (and better educated) person trying to emerge, and it is the subtle changes in him that make this book so moving and powerful.
The movement back and forth in time also helps Díaz explore his characters’ sense of national identity and belonging. Yunior is American, but he also feels Dominican. He describes the trip to Santo Domingo as “coming home”, but he is also aware of other characters who are “proper” nationals, “Dominican Dominican”. The nuances of race and nationality are also captured in his speech, a kind of macho, street-wise American English mixed in with Spanish words and phrases. Unlike in Drown, there is no glossary of any of the Spanish words, nor are the Spanish words italicised in the text. The suggestion seems to be that the Spanish words are not “foreign”: Díaz’s characters merely speak a form of American English. If that leaves the book’s monolingual readers with a sense of incomprehension or exclusion, then that too is part of Díaz’s strength. He brings us close to his characters, but reminds us that we too are “different” and “other”. He lets his characters speak the language of the poor and uneducated, but he gives them eloquence and dignity, and depths that were hinted at in the earlier collection, but have become more apparent in this one.