The Pulitzer Prize-winning author's new collection takes an honest, critical—and sometimes unsettling—look at gender dynamics.
Yunior de Las Casas—narrator of many of the stories in Junot Diaz's new collection, This Is How You Lose Her—is capable of great turns of phrase and stunning social insight. But his understanding of women is—as Diaz told me in an interview by phone—"pretty fucking limited." Take, for instance, his description of Miss Lora, an aging seductress and high school teacher:
"Miss Lora was too skinny. Had no hips whatsoever. No breasts, either, no ass, even her hair failed to make the grade."
This isn't a description of a person so much as a mental checklist of physical attributes, a man scoping a woman's dimensions the way a butcher might rove his eye over a calf. The book is filled with similar descriptions; Yunior lavishes time on chronicles of body parts and erotic hydraulics. At the same time, he spends little space engaging with the emotional lives of female characters—their motivations, complications, and desires; their reasons for entering and leaving relationships; the psychological effects of his wounding betrayals. It's almost as though Yunior doesn't have the depth to contemplate a female psychology, let alone make one real for a third party. And when he does directly address the reader—like when he tells us Nilda, his brother's girlfriend, has "a chest you wouldn't believe"—he assumes we're high-fiving heterosexual males (just like he is).
This failure of imagination worsens Yunior's mistreatment of his romantic partners, whom he betrays serially and without flinching.
But Yunior's cavalier descriptions of the way he dupes and wounds these women are at odds with the sadness he feels when they find out. Diaz writes that this despair is "pelagic," sea-like in scope, and the feeling only deepens with time. Part of the heartbreak of this book is watching Yunior make the same self-destructive decisions again and again—and still he lacks the insight or vocabulary to understand why he feels so blown away. We feel it in the way he mourns: Yunior loves these women, and he would do anything to keep them if only he knew how.
The book, then, is the story of late-blooming empathy, a long path towards gender enlightenment. We only see Yunior's dawning awareness of his subjectivity on the final pages of the book, in an epic called "The Cheater's Guide to Love"; otherwise, Diaz's commits fully to his chauvinistic method-acting. That's what makes This Is How You Lose Her such a brave and risky book. How can an author write so convincingly from the perspective of a machismo cad and still write a book that is not itself sexist?
Diaz has walked this line before: In Drown, his 1996 debut short-story collection, and in 2007's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He told me that sometimes people—usually women—lambaste him at his readings and public appearances.
"There's plenty of people out there who are like, 'Fuck you. You are endorsing this shit. Your portrayal of women is fucked up,'" he told me. "It happens all the time."
But then, there are women who defend his portrayals as honest, brave, and sufficiently complex. "They'll argue the exact opposite," Diaz said. (It's worth noting that men seldom ask questions about women at all, according to Diaz. "Rarely do I get dudes who want to talk gender," Diaz told me. "That's the strange thing about privilege.")
How can a book's portrayal of women be praised and criticized at the same time? Part of it may stem from Diaz's unflinching authorial vision, which requires giving voice to the silenced victims of history and of our moment. But Oscar Wao's many scenes of brutal violence, including rape, required a strong stomach. As a one-star GoodReads review of the book, written by a woman, explained:
"I recognize the literary abilities of Junot Diaz. The book is well-written; the language hypnotic in fact. This book, for all the things that bothered me, is hard to put down.
So, the one star rating is more of a reaction to the emotional upheaval this book left me with. I just can't get behind a book so completely misogynistic. And I don't know the author's intent, and I'm afraid I don't know nearly enough about Dominican history as I should, but I was just left really quite devastated by it.
Women are objects in this novel. Objects for men to own, to destroy, to collect as many as they can. Almost every female character in the novel is cheated on, raped, attacked, beaten or murdered; sometimes more than once, sometimes all five. And while I understand the violence of the Dominican Republic during the time of Trujillo, I guess what pisses me off is the flippancy with which the narrator talks about it...
I'm not necessarily offended by these things being written about in this way...if there's a point. Perhaps a scathing commentary about the misogyny in Dominican society. But he doesn't get there and I was left with so much anger and confusion."
I disagree with the commenter's remark about Oscar Wao's "flippancy." To me, Yunior's sometimes-wry tone serves to blunt scenes that might otherwise be unreadable for their horror. But some of the reviewer's criticisms, that women are depicted as "objects" and that they are "cheated on," are applicable to This Is How You Lose Her—and I'll admit that Yunior, this time around, is a flippant raconteur. How do we discern a "scathing commentary" from something that's just sexist?
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Diaz said he wrote the book, in part, to acknowledge the deep sexism that pervades our culture but frequently remains unaddressed. He admits that, by tackling the topic head-on, he risks writing a book that is perceived as sexist (or is sexist). But he quoted a favorite line from James Baldwin: "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced." In this light, Diaz feels he has a moral obligation to reckon with male privilege. "I think the average guy thinks they're pro-woman, just because they think they're a nice guy and someone has told them that they're awesome," he said. "But the truth is far from it. Unless you are actively, consciously working against the gravitational pull of the culture, you will predictably, thematically, create these sort of fucked-up representations."
The problem and paradox is that Diaz must allow for accusations of sexism in order for his work to read like art. If it's too clear what his feelings are, if an agenda or platform asserts itself, then the story's worth as literature is diminished.
"If it's too brute and too obvious," Diaz said, "then it becomes allegorical, becomes a parable, becomes kind of a moral tale. You want to make it subtle enough so that there are arguments like this." The value of literature, then, comes from presenting readers with morally ambiguous situations and letting them react. "For kind of sophisticated art I'm interested in," he said, "the larger structural rebuke has to be so subtle that it has to be distributed at an almost sub-atomic level. Otherwise, you fall into the kind of preachy, moralistic fable that I don't think makes for good literature."