Wednesday, June 05, 2013

This Is How You Lose Her

Epigraph (by Sandra Cisneros) for Junot Diaz's short-story collection "This Is How You Lose Her":

Okay, we didn't work, and all
memories to tell you the truth aren't good.
But sometimes there were good times.
Love was good. I loved your crooked sleep
beside me and never dreamed afraid.

There should be stars for great wars
like ours.

I've been out of the loop when it comes to contemporary literature for some time now, aside from being extremely wowed by the occasional New Yorker story (like "Black Box" from Jennifer Egan and George Saunders' "Semplica Girl Diaries"). Junot Diaz's story "The Cheater's Guide to Love" also appeared in the New Yorker last year and I was similarly impressed. But also kind of wary of HIM: A bit too much hype for his "street cred" --- aka, he's a Dominican (that's what passes for "street cred" among New Yorker editors and publicity folks; the guy went to Rutgers and got an MFA from Cornell, for pete's sake); oh, and -- wooo! -- he talks about sex and uses Spanish words in his stories!

I could not give one shit about Diaz's "diversity" (and I also think it completely ridiculous that he received a $500,000 MacArthur "genius grant" in 2012 based only on 2 short-story collections and 1 novel in 16 years); but the story "Cheater's Guide to Love" literally made my heart ache, in a GOOD way. In sections titled from "Year O" to "Year 5," he documents a playa's painful semi-recuperation from a broken relationship. I have nothing at all in common with the narrator's outer characteristics/circumstances of the breakup (established on the first page: the guy, in love with his girlfriend, nevertheless has sex with numerous other women during the span of their 6-year relationship and gets busted when the girlfriend reads the inbox of his e-mail)... but I definitely knew what it was like to be both mentally and physically nauseous with the knowledge that YOU HAVE SOMEHOW FUCKED UP TERRIBLY. I loved the year-by-year breakdown, trying to read clues to various situations of my own from the narrator's progress, or lack of. The ex doesn't physically reappear in the story after "Year O" but she's a mental character until the end--I liked that refusal to give in to any sort of (especially reader) sentiment. The narrator's mental/physical journey after such a huge psychic loss was what was so interesting to me.

The last lines of the story:
...and then one June night you scribble the ex's name and: The half-life of love is forever.
You bust out a couple more things. Then you put your head down.
The next day you look at the new pages. For once you don't want to burn them or give up writing forever.
It's a start, you say to the room.
That's about it. In the months that follow you bend to the work, because it feels like hope, like grace -- and because you know in your lying cheater's heart that sometimes a start is all we ever get.

"Cheater's Guide" appears at the end of Diaz's latest story collection, "This Is How You Lose Her," which came out last year (and which I just finished reading from the library). I wasn't AS blown away with the "wonderment of life" or anything after reading the other stories in the collection, but I did LIKE them a lot. Because the narrator's voice in the stories is so deceptively easy and vernacular, I was initially fooled into thinking that the stories themselves were also rather simple... Not so. There's an intimacy and subtlety in both the physical and mental details of the characters' lives that's profound and beautiful.

And, more shallowly, having lived in Central Jersey for 2 years and being very acquainted with the folks who live/shop/travel along Bergenline bordering Union City (especially after taking a Bergenline bus to work in North Jersey every day for 6 months, an hour each way -- and shopping there on weekends at the multitude of dollar/cheap-clothing stores since I was so poor), I was also excited to completely get references like: "...She's a Bergenline original: short with a big mouth and big hips and dark curly hair you could lose a hand in. Her father's a baker, her mother sells kids' clothes door to door. She might be nobody's pendeja but she's also a forgiving soul." Many of the local references Diaz mentions, I was going mentally: "Hey, I KNOW that place!"

(Funny that a middle-aged white woman from Texas probably knows the area around Bergenline 10 times better than most life-long Manhattanites just across the river!)  Any story that I write, though, might also mention ironically the official city-signs dotting Bergenline every few blocks: "Celebrating Diversity" -- the faces that I saw there were 98% Hispanic.

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