Junot Díaz's last work, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, won him a well-deserved Pulitzer. His new collection of short stories, This is How You Lose Her, sidesteps the problem of topping that insurmountable work by abandoning the epic for the episodic.
For a Pulitzer Prize winner, Díaz is startlingly self-deprecating. To hear him tell it, he is a mediocre but extraordinarily lucky writer whose sparse bibliography reflects the few kernels of good material gleaned from the crumpled reams of awful writing he's produced over the years. But Díaz's humility and aggressive self-editing are to our benefit, translating into sleek, unassuming prose and evident in the painstakingly calibrated precision with which he delivers his emotional coups de grace.
By contrast, Díaz's narrative also relies on a dense mélange of Spanish and American slang and cultural references as broad as Dominican history, American science fiction and comic books. These references are sometimes incomprehensible to anyone not, as Díaz's protagonist and alter ego Yunior are, Dominican-American nerds living in New Jersey. The result can be daunting, but the benefit is that it situates Yunior with vivid specificity, faithfully presenting a detailed cross-section of the unique cultural space he occupies.
With few exceptions, the stories in this collection focus on the now familiar Yunior, who has appeared in each of Díaz's other works. With some overlap, it picks up Yunior's story where Drown left off and proceeds to plot his life through the romantic relationships he forms and inevitably sabotages, mostly by cheating. By design, the narrowed focus compels us to view Yunior's progression into manhood entirely through the prism of his troubled love life, forcing connections between his relationships with women and the family scenes that comprise several stories.
And the stories are rife with explanations for Yunior's inability to form healthy attachments: the adulterous father who abandons him; the player brother, abusive even while battling cancer; the relationship, at 16, with a woman decades his senior. We can pity him his childhood and commiserate with him in his heartbreak. But in the end, nothing quite absolves Yunior of his inveterate adultery.
Some have criticized the collection as an implicit endorsement of male misbehavior, and while it's true that Díaz never offers a full-throated disavowal of Yunior's womanizing or the sexism inherent in his perspective, the collection is undeniably critical of them. For contrast, take Tucker Max, whose stories read like the fantasies of mildly sociopathic frat boys, tales of sexual exploit that end crowing bare-chested on the beer pong table, another notch in their bottle-opener. Díaz, on the other hand, fades out on an aging Yunior, self-flagellating with the memories of his blown romances, belatedly repentant and utterly alone.