The Half-Life of Love

Junot Díaz, This Is How You Lose Her

Faber & Faber, 224pp, £12.99, ISBN 9780571294190

reviewed by Matt Lewis

Junot Díaz is not a prolific author - he's only written three works in the past 16 years. He is, however, a successful one: his Pulitzer Prize, recent MacArthur ‘genius’ grant, PEN/Malamud Award and National Book Critics Circle Award can attest to that. His most recent collection of stories, This Is How You Lose Her, has much in common with his two previous books and, if anything, manages to better them at their own game.

Just as in Drown (Riverhead, 1996) and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead, 2007), all but one of the stories in This is How You Lose Her are narrated by the tough-talking, streetwise Dominican-American Yunior de las Casas. The setting also remains the same: the action all takes place in the immigrant communities of New Jersey or back in La Isla. But where Drown strived to be all encompassing in its depiction of the ‘immigrant experience’, the second collection – whilst very much a sister piece – takes as its focus the infidelities and failed relationships of its narrator. That is not to say that all of the themes explored in the previous two books are not also present. Díaz’s minimalist prose shows a complete mastery of Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory: he always hints at more than he immediately gives away.

The author’s now trademark mix of unitalicised Spanish and vernacular English, of high and low registers and of pop and the recherché is as idiosyncratic, elliptical and effective as it has ever been. Nonetheless, in this latest volume, Yunior’s voice is more mature, more certain of itself: as the last story shows, Yunior is now an author teaching at Harvard. Accordingly, the text is speckled with playfully self-conscious phrases such as: ‘This is how all these stories begin’ or ‘If this was another kind of story I’d tell you about the sea.’ The narration is always stylised and never completely reliable.

Many of these realist stories are told from the difficult perspective of the second-person. For the most part, Díaz's eschewal of the more comfortable territory of first-person narration pays off. The device is at once distancing and universalising, and as such is totally in keeping with the author's larger intentions with the collection. Though it makes the artifice of his stories' construction more evident, it simultaneously (and perhaps paradoxically) allow them to become more evocative and affecting. Díaz's deployment of the second-person is nothing short of a bravura performance.

The book begins with ‘The Sun, The Moon, The Stars’: a story that recounts the end of one of Yunior’s long-term relationships and a doomed holiday to Santo Domingo that the couple takes. It begins with the telling phrase, ‘I’m not a bad guy. I know how that sounds – defensive, unscrupulous – but it’s true’, and continues in an attempt to both itemise the narrator's infidelity and to lay bare the reasons for his betrayal. As with the other eight stories, the tone is pervaded with a note of the elegiac.

The other stories cover a series of relationships at distinct periods in the narrator’s life, each subtly different and each adding to the reader's understanding of the protagonist's identity. These capture his existence from as many different angles as possible, enabling what Díaz himself has described as ‘Rashomon effects’. Yunior’s perennial philandering can be seen in many different lights, none of which is positive. It can be read as the ultimate effect of macho Dominican culture and male privilege, as a consequence of the infidelity of the protagonist's father and brother, or even as a manifestation of the childhood sexual trauma revealed in Drown. But the activities of Yunior should not simply be seen as an attempt to characterise the Latino section of the population, but instead as a synecdoche for the whole of the United States, where male privilege, at least according to Díaz, is always a serious problem.

The only story not narrated by Yunior, ‘Otravida, Otravez’, is told by Yasmin, the one-time lover of Yunior’s father Ramón. Despite the shift in perspective – and the change in gender – this story is one of the strongest in the book. Yasmin stands by Ramón even though she is aware of her lover's family back in the Dominican Republic. She remains hopeful that he will love her, and Díaz carefully recreates the point at which their relationship begins to falter. The story is pervaded by an overwhelming sense of impending tragedy, as the attentive reader will recognise from details in the other stories that Rámon, like Yunior, will not remain with his lover for long. Yasmin, like the vast majority of the other immigrants in the collection, is afflicted by real poverty and works as a menial labourer in the laundry room of a hospital. Though she suffers at the hands of machismo and of the unforgiving US state, her dignity somehow remains intact to the end.

Yunior shares many biographical details with the author himself – they both have an abusive father who left for the US, both teach at a Massachusetts university, and both have an older brother who suffered from childhood cancer – and it is tempting to conflate the two. But, ultimately, Yunior is revealed to be a fictional alter ego of the author, one who serves a specific purpose. He is, as the author has said, ‘a dumbass’, and representative of the mistakes that any male – Latino or not – can make in love. Much like John Updike used Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom to show the warts-and-all, mildly misogynist life of the American everyman, so too does Díaz deploy Yunior. The autobiographical details simply add ballast to the narrational authority of the book. Díaz's art is too carefully created to be entirely representative of reality.

The collection as a whole is structured like the title of the concluding story: ‘A Cheater’s Guide to Love’. From the varied viewpoints we see Yunior at different stages of maturity, before he, heartbroken, finally reaches the conclusion that his ex ‘did the right thing’ in leaving him. The move towards catharsis and self-knowledge is slow but definite. As many critics have pointed out, there is a certain irony in the book’s title, for, as Yunior writes in the last few pages, ‘The half-life of love is forever.’ One never fully stops loving a former lover - this painful conclusion makes the collection's overarching theme of uncontrollable adultery exponentially more poignant.

This Is How You Lose Her is a collection of stories of the first rank. Through a carefully cultivated thematic unity and the development of a single character, the collection is novelistic in its sweep, yet each component retains all the particularity and roundedness of an excellent short story. If there's another chapter in the life of Yunior de las Casas to be told, I would certainly not mind waiting another 16 years to read it. It would doubtless be worth the wait.