A conversation with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author about his new book, This Is How You Lose Her
The stories in Junot Diaz's new collection, This Is How You Lose Her, tread some familiar territory. Unfolding in Bergen County barrios and on Santo Domingo beaches, they feature fast-talking Dominicans (from there, from here) struggling against the pinions of racial prejudice, poverty, and immigrant status. But the specific focus on romantic relationships is new for Diaz. Each story depicts the complex negotiations between men and women held in thrall by the thrill or ravages of love, the lure and pathos of betrayal.
Eight of the nine stories here are narrated by Yunior de Las Casas, the poet and career philanderer whose acerbic silver tongue spoke Diaz's first two books. But This Is How You Lose Her is a long way from the cocksure swagger of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2006). Yunior's older now, more contrite and desperate and vulnerable, and his cheating's catching up with him. "I'm not a bad guy," he tells us in the first sentence of the book. Like the excuses and alibis he slips his jilted lovers, it's a lie he badly needs us to believe.
The guiding irony of This Is How You Lose Her is that Yunior never does lose his women—not fully. Even after the cheating, the screaming and hair-pulling, the train-wreck breakups, Yunior's exes haunt him in visceral ways: "The half-life of love is forever," he confesses in the book's final epic "The Cheater's Guide to Love." There's a paradox here—loss can have a permanence love rarely attains. In this light, each story is a shrine to the women who, because of his own limitations, Yunior loves most earnestly, and most loyally, in hindsight.
Two questions underlie the propulsive energy of this book: Why does Yunior scuttle his relationships as soon as they hit full sail? And who are these women really? They're never fully visible in the narrator's machismo, anatomical confessions. I discussed these and other questions with the author, who spoke to me by phone from Harlem.
How long have you been working on these stories? What's the oldest? The newest?
When I was working on Drown—this was way back in the mid-'90s—I had this idea that I wanted to do another collected stories. I wanted to do another book like Drown that focused specifically on infidelity. Male infidelity was something that kept coming up in Drown, and I wanted to follow my main protagonist Yunior in his progress through cheating. It grew into the idea for this book.
That was in the mid-'90s, and then it took absolutely forever to get the damn thing done.
So Drown and This Is How You Lose Her are, in a sense, sister projects.
Yeah. They definitely had their geneses at the same moment.
Sometimes writers write stories and realize themes or common threads much later. It sounds like you took the opposite approach: You wrote many of these stories with an eventual collection already in mind.
Oh, I would say all the stories I wrote with this collection in mind.
Why does cheating make such compelling subject matter?
Well... there's just something spectacular about it. There's a bit of a spectacle to it. It also ties into what I would call our "neighborly narrative interests"—who's fucking who, and who's up to what.
People are always fascinated by infidelity because, in the end—whether we've had direct experience or not—there's part of you that knows there's absolutely no more piercing betrayal. People are undone by it. Love is understood, in a historical way, as one of the great human vocations—but its counterspell has always been infidelity. This terrible, terrible betrayal that can tear apart not only another person, not only oneself, but whole families.
In the archaic record, this idea of infidelity is elevated to a national level: In The Iliad, we see this kind of treachery tear apart nations. And I think anyone who's ever been betrayed like that certainly feels a little bit of the Troy in them. When your heart gets torn to bits, it feels like a nation being torn to bits.
So there's the epic scale, but then it's so extraordinarily intimate. I think that the combination is really a brilliant one-two punch.
How would you describe the maturation process that Yunior undergoes throughout the book? In the early stories, his cheating stems from brute, simple lust—but by the end of the book his betrayals are far more complicated.
And just to add one final wrinkle, in [his ability to imagine] the consequences of what he used to consider just flippant activity. I mean, you read the last story in the collection: It's almost impossible to look back at the earlier stories that are played for laughs without wincing. I think that was one of the effects that I was looking for. God knows if it works. You know, you try.
To talk about Yunior is to talk about an individual that fascinates me, because he's aware that his various decisions block his ability to be in a real relationship. Part of what drives Yunior in the novel Oscar Wao—and it's never really stated, but it's at the margins of the book throughout—is that Yunior has a fascination with Oscar because Oscar permits himself, despite the fact that he has no hope in succeeding, to be utterly vulnerable to the possibility of love. Oscar consistently thrusts himself, places himself, openly, in the hands of other people. In the hands of the women that he thinks he loves and who always reject him. Yunior is fascinated by this because he himself is never able to take off any of the armor, or any of the masks, that a person has to completely take off to expose themselves to the vulnerability of love.
Yunior is often betraying the women who he cares most about—choosing women he doesn't love over the ones he does. Why?
There's a point when you're with somebody in a relationship where the decision comes down to their love or your mask. And by "the mask," we mean your terror in exposing yourself, your terror in making yourself vulnerable to this other person. I think Yunior's tragedy in a number of places in this book is that he keeps choosing his mask. Sometimes he does it compulsively, sometimes he's unaware. But it grows on him that he plays at relationships.
Being in love means you actually have to be in the game. And to be in the game means that you have to actually risk losing, right? It's not a game if you can't lose. It's something else. And I think Yunior likes to pretend that he's in the game. But really he's not. Really, he can't lose. He's always got some other girls up the way. He's always got something going on.
I always joked that Yunior was the guy who you think is stranded out in the open sea with you, but he's got a life vest tucked between his legs.