The stories in Junot Diaz’s new collection, This Is How You Lose Her, tread some familiar territory. Unfolding in Bergen County barrios and on Santo Domingo beaches, they feature fast-talking Dominicans (from there, from here) struggling against the pinions of racial prejudice, poverty, and immigrant status. But the specific focus on romantic relationships is new for Diaz. Each story depicts the complex negotiations between men and women held in thrall by the thrill or ravages of love, the lure and pathos of betrayal.
Eight of the nine stories here are narrated by Yunior de Las Casas, the poet and career philanderer whose acerbic silver tongue spoke Diaz’s first two books. But This Is How You Lose Her is a long way from the cocksure swagger of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2006). Yunior’s older now, more contrite and desperate and vulnerable, and his cheating’s catching up with him. “I’m not a bad guy,” he tells us in the first sentence of the book. Like the excuses and alibis he slips his jilted lovers, it’s a lie he badly needs us to believe.
The guiding irony of This Is How You Lose Her is that Yunior never does lose his women—not fully. Even after the cheating, the screaming and hair-pulling, the train-wreck breakups, Yunior’s exes haunt him in visceral ways: “The half-life of love is forever,” he confesses in the book’s final epic “The Cheater’s Guide to Love.” There’s a paradox here—loss can have a permanence love rarely attains. In this light, each story is a shrine to the women who, because of his own limitations, Yunior loves most earnestly, and most loyally, in hindsight.
Two questions underlie the propulsive energy of this book: Why does Yunior scuttle his relationships as soon as they hit full sail? And who are these women really? They’re never fully visible in the narrator’s machismo, anatomical confessions. I discussed these and other questions with the author, who spoke to me by phone from Harlem.
How long have you been working on these stories? What’s the oldest? The newest?
When I was working on Drown—this was way back in the mid-’90s—I had this idea that I wanted to do another collected stories. I wanted to do another book like Drown that focused specifically on infidelity. Male infidelity was something that kept coming up in Drown, and I wanted to follow my main protagonist Yunior in his progress through cheating. It grew into the idea for this book.
That was in the mid-’90s, and then it took absolutely forever to get the damn thing done.
So Drown and This Is How You Lose Her are, in a sense, sister projects.
Yeah. They definitely had their geneses at the same moment.