This is How You Lose and Win and Lose: Junot Diaz and the Campaign (!) for Honesty

I seldom listen to my own radio show, either because I'm dining with the fambly or grading student essays, but I recalled from weeks earlier enjoying my taped talk with Junot Diaz, and made a point of listening to last Wednesday night's excellent Bibliocracy interview with the MacArthur genius and Pulitzer Prize-winner. I wish I'd, as promised, solicited comment from him on politics, but of course the big victory the day earlier had made me so ecstatic, gloaty, hungry for more reactionary butt-whooping that chatting with him about all the rest of it was almost enough. I joke to friends that I don't actually need to listen to the show anyway, since I heard it the first time, but in this case I re-heard some pretty amazing stuff in between Diaz's excellent readings from his new short story collection, This is How You Lose Her

I like that he answered my compliment about avoiding the pigeonhole of easy ethnic identity lit by going deeper, longer, and talking sincerely about the responsibility of Literature to be big, more, everything. I like it when the author takes his/her work so seriously, not to mention his mission. Another smart thing he said had to do with the use of blank space, which is to say that unwritten narrative in between short stories. Here is a fiction writer with lots to say, and who knows when to say it and when not to say it. So, yes, short stories instead of another novel - like his brilliant and totally complete The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - where what's "missing" is what is entirely there. 

Both of these issues, how to construct a more ambitious narrative--and how to write one in fragments--seem to me to reflect (if perhaps an unoriginal reflection), on Diaz's own life and persona.  He and his characters are split down the middle, as, if you will, the island-nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, or even the United 
States, with its (you choose) haves and have-nots or, if you will (again), halved and whole.  In our own country The Other and its allies would seem, happily, to have knocked down the dominant paradigm just a little this past week, if somehow been unable to insist on a bigger story. Make of it what you will, can or must. The whole story takes a long time to tell. But the statistics, the actions speak loud. How, then, to be complete, incomplete at the same time? 

Be honest. Diaz's remarkable, resonant, economically written and yet also dialog-driven narratives are able to assume two difficult worldviews simultaneously, so that all nine stories make up a much longer and bigger book. They tell the stories of characters halved, split, lost yet so conscious--especially the Narrator, or his alter ego Yunior--of what is missing that we are, ironically, assured at all the loss. A childhood stolen by the dictator Trujillo, by a brutally strict and sad striver of a brutal father, by brothers and uncles who steal from mothers and lovers, emotionally and from their purses, too. Diaz is unshy about sewing his heart to his sleeve, and then rolling it up and getting to it. The politics, arguably pro-feminist and clearly anti-colonial, are writ in vulnerability and loss even as they speak in all kinds of language, from slang to the intellectual insights of a professor-type who resembles, yes, the grown-up JD, who teaches today at MIT

Of course, this main through-line character might also, to stretch here only a little, be our newly re-elected bi-racial and storied President Obama, who relies methinks a bit too much, if nonetheless successfully, on what is not, cannot be spoken. Those comments I would have solicited from Diaz might have elaborated further on his analysis of Barry-Barack in The New Yorker :

I've been waiting for Obama to flex his narrative tell the story of where our country is going and why we should help deliver it there. A coherent, accessible, compelling story--one that is narrow enough to be held in our minds and hearts  and that nevertheless is roomy enough for us, the audience, to weave our own predilections, dreams, fears, experiences into its fabric. Ideas are wonderful things, but unless they're couched in a good story they can do nothing.

Well, Obama and his crew didn't listen to Diaz or George Lakoff, cognitive linguist and progressive answer to Frank Lutz, the Dr. Evil of GOP pandering. But he, they (we) still won. So? I have been reading a lot of Lakoff lately--listening to his lectures, more honestly - and reconsidering his Big Idea about the political "strict father--nurturing parent" model and the place of metaphor. In terms of art, Diaz seems to have gotten there, too. Or maybe that's what good fiction does all the time, election season or not. (Maybe Obama knows his audience better than we do.) Diaz's own political and emotional character (and the character of his characters) shows through all the winning personae here, so that his presence as creator of what I felt with each story a kind of contest or campaign for fullness and transparency begins with the very first story: "I'm not a bad guy. 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 though. She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole."

Next US president
Next US president

Of course, he is both, and the consistent and yet tragically imaginative ways this guy and the others (a wounded brother Diaz's most touching exemplar) find to prove it are the excruciatingly painful if funny stories, all varieties of, yes, love story. Immigrants, parents, girlfriends get hurt. The sadistic history of the island shows up, the neighborhood and the unwelcoming new country. Big conclusion? In the final, longish story, "The Cheater's Guide to Love," our Narrator (or all of them) seem to have learned, if perhaps learned mostly that loss is sometimes more alive and urgent than the moment of having. "The half-life of love is forever." This is a sad, beautiful collection where, yes, what is left unsaid is as loud and clear and elegant as what is said. And that's just the white space, blank pages. How better than to tell of loss? Listen to it as you read the actual words, which are pretty darn amazing, too.

This is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz, Penguin, 213 pps., $26.95

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 00.7 FM in Southern California.

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