Junot Díaz furthers canon with short stories

This Is How You Lose Her is Junot Díaz’s second collection of short stories and the third book of his writing career. His earlier novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, swept the literary awards upon its release in 2007, winning everything from the Pulitzer to the National Book Critics Circle Award. There are nine interrelated short stories in This Is How You Lose Her (which is a contender for the Best Book Title of the Decade award), six of which have been previously published in literary magazines.

Díaz’s style is something that can only be fully understood when read. In a way, it’s simple. His prose reads like a poem of the colloquial. Pompous is not in this man’s diccionario. His diction is vulgar, crass and crude, and he dreams up expletives that could make a sailor blush. But when read as a whole, each story becomes ultimately beautiful in its own language. The result is frantically paced narration told in everyday speech that is easy to absorb. It does a remarkable job of distracting the reader from the nuances Díaz takes with his plots and key character moments. What’s more impressive is Díaz’s ability to pepper his stories with occasional Spanglish that is instantly recognizable to non-native speakers. From the context readers can guess what most of the Spanish words mean, and for the others, he clearly conveys the emotions behind them.

In Díaz’s other works, cultural identity took a leading role. But in this entry, he establishes in the first story, “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars,” that This Is How You Lose Her is not that kind of book. Díaz doesn’t allow diaspora or nationalities to take control of the collection because, he states, “that would make it another kind of story, and I’m having enough trouble with this one as it is” (page 10). No, as the book jacket succinctly explains, this collection of stories is about that beast called love. Filial love, romantic love, lustful love; Díaz does not stick to one particular brand. But don’t expect love stories with sunsets and passionate letters. Those letters get shredded, and the sunsets are metaphors for the relationships themselves. But as bleak as they are, the stories are never hopeless.

The other aspect of this collection that differs from his previous works is how painfully honest everything feels. Not to say that Drown or Oscar Wao weren’t raw, but some of the stories are almost physically painful to read. This conveys his writing power and expertise. He writes five of the nine stories in second person perspective, with the reader as a character. Not many stories are told from this point of view because it is difficult to write them without the result appearing clumsy, but Díaz makes it work. Therefore, part of the reason that there is this visceral and immediate connection to the characters in these stories is that the reader is in fact the protagonist.

The final story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” exemplifies this painful honesty because it is simply heartbreaking in its ability to lay bare the narrator’s emotional isolation. Its ending is disgustingly personal, akin to reading a diary entry of a depressed author who almost lost faith in writing, life and love. It’s easy to suspect that is, in fact, the case. If it is not, Díaz has concocted a masterpiece of empathy. Either way, the results are haunting.

Clocking in at 224 pages, This Is How You Lose Her is a quick read, and not one of the nine stories is a miss. Sure, some are more memorable than others, but all of them are worth reading at least a dozen times.

Readers who have never read a Díaz book should expect to be thrown back by coarse language which will ensure the book is never on a high school library’s shelf. But the flagrant obscenities have a purpose to the stories. They represents the cadence and unexpected grace of colloquial speech, and what is more vulgar, crass, crude and ultimately more beautiful than love?