Despite all the TV jokes about New Jersey, it has long been the bedrock for our best writers — from Dorothy Parker and Philip Roth to William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg — and don't forget the Boss, Bruce Springsteen. Now add Junot Díaz to that illustrious list.
If you know Díaz's previous literary work (Drown and the Pulitzer novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) then it is no surprise that his fictional alter ego, the Dominican-born, New Jersey-bred Yunior narrates eight of nine interconnected short stories about love, pain, and the whole damn thing.
"I'm not a bad guy." Yunior writes. "I know how that sounds — defensive, unscrupulous — but it's true. I'm like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good. Magdalena disagrees through. She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole."
Throughout, Yunior, now a writer and college professor, spins his tale in a mash-up of hip-hop argot, fan boy factoids, barrio street-speak and literary refs. And yet all the braggadocio, machismo, and narcissism aside, these stories more importantly reveal the searing and extraordinary lives of the women he loves, lusts, and loses.
Ultimately, his sexual addiction and machismo rear their ugly faces and the cycle repeats itself. It is apparent to the reader that this act, this hustle is growing old — plus he has back problems. This hits home when his older brother Rafa whom Yunior deeply admires and emulates is stricken with cancer; Yunior painfully and lovingly recounts his bro's last days — his/their mortality in the moving "The Pura Principle."
In the book's centerpiece "The Cheater's Guide to Love," Yunior chronicles how his relationship with his "fiancée" ends when he cheats on her: "As a totally batshit cuero who didn't empty his e-mail trash can, she caught you with fifty. Sure, over a six-year period, but still."
Will his ex take a machete to him? Will Yunior pay for his sins of the flesh? Rehab? Yoga? Suffice to say, Díaz is our literary equivalent of Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar in those madcap matters of the heart.
A fortnight before the release of This is How You Lose Her, I exchanged emails with Díaz about his writing.
Were the elements of the telenovela of episodic TV present when you wrote these interconnected stories?
Novelas taught me a lot about narrative, about storytelling, how to hold people's attention over a span of episodes. But with this book I also wanted a hybrid pleasure. I wanted, to be precise, a story collection with a novelistic arc; and also I wanted to give readers the novel's standard pleasure: long connection to characters and their world. Like a good immigrant I guess I wanted the best of both worlds.
Yunior is enigmatic, an unreliable narrator in what he says but more importantly what he doesn't say. Is he playing the reader?
Think about what Yunior's operative mode is with the woman in his life. Deception. Playing roles. Wearing masks. And then think about what Yunior does for his work.
He is a writer of fiction. He puts on masks for a living. I don't think it's an accident, this connection — this overlap. Yunior has turned a problem in his social life into the engine that powers his artistic life. The game of the book is always for the reader to parse when he's being one versus when he's being the other.