April 24, 2013

Book Review: "This is How You Lose Her" by Junot Diaz

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This is How You Lose Her

This is How You Lose Her
By Junot Diaz
Reviewed by Travis Fortney

After reading This is How You Lose Her earlier this week, I can count myself as an accidental Junot Diaz completist. His first collection Drown was assigned reading in college, and like many others I read Oscar Wao upon its release a few years ago. I'm not sure what to say about the body of work as a whole, other than that I wish there were more of it. I have enjoyed each of his books, and in my opinion he continues to improve with each infrequent outing.

Although Oscar Wao is certainly Diaz's most ambitious work to date, Drown and this new collection actually function somewhat better as novels. In Drown, the last story concerning the father illuminates the rest of the collection. This is How You Lose Her functions as a kind of shattered or elliptical narrative exploring the past traumas, lost loves, and immigrant experience of the protagonist Yunior, while also functioning as an expression of Yunior's self-contempt and shame regarding his treatment of women, and an exploration of his cultural and paternal heritage. Even the seemingly disparate "Otravida, Otraves" at the center of the book could be read as a the elder Yunior re-imagining his father's life before the rest of the family's arrival in the States, trying to understand his father's struggles or simply paint a thoughtful portrait of the woman and life his father ultimately chose over his family.

My favorite story in the collection is "Invierno" which appears late in the book and recounts Yunior's first days in America. It also functions as the first appearance of Yunior's previously absent father, and serves as a flash backward into Yunior's childhood and a more sympathetic view of his doomed brother Rafa, whose decline, death, and continued shadow presence in Yunior's life is a central theme in the book. "Invierno" hit me in a way that Diaz's writing hadn't before. I have always found Diaz's slangy, fast, Spanglish-laden, street smart voice to be electric, but I found his earlier work somewhat light and entertaining. Although very informative and insightful regarding the experience of Dominican immigrants, I had never connected with his characters emotionally or even felt like I understood them particularly well, but that changed in this collection. "Invierno" cleverly forces us to shift our view of certain characters--because we have gotten to know Mami and Rafa a bit by that point in the book, we're surprised by the way they react to their new home, and we can begin to understand how traumatic their displacement must be for them. "Invierno" also deepens Yunior's character, so that by the last story "A Cheater's Guide to Love"--told from what appears to be the thinly veiled autobiographical point of view of the adult Diaz--we can better understand and emphasize with the undercurrent of loneliness, the smattering of anger and bitterness, that runs that runs through that story. We get the sense that this narrator's painful isolation from the world around him involves more than just his failures in love.

In closing, I have to come clean and say I know for a fact that in addition to being a great writer, Junot Diaz is a genuinely good guy. I know this because my wife and I attended a reading he gave at the Art Institute here in Chicago just after Oscar Wao came out, and after waiting in line to get our books signed I pretty much ambushed him with a really sloppy man-hug.To this day, I'm not sure where the impulse came from, and I'm a bit embarrassed, but the vibe seemed right. Despite the awkwardness, in the picture someone in line behind us snapped Diaz is (barely) smiling. That meeting/ambush resulted not only in that anecdote, but a signed first edition, first printing copy of a Pulitzer prize-winning novel, which I then gave my brother as a Christmas gift. I love my brother, and I give him nice gifts, but anyone who has seen the thousands of books in my living room could tell you that I wouldn't be likely to give away a signed first edition of any book, let alone one I liked as much as Oscar Wao. So why did I give that one away? Here's the truth about Junot Diaz--undeniable talent, nice guy, and the kind of writing that cries out to be shared.

Out of 10: 9

Read even more about This is How You Lose Her: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Travis Fortney at 1:47 PM, April 24, 2013. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Travis Fortney |