So I just finished Junot Díaz’s second book, This is How You Lose Her. A friend lent it to me, and I’ve been wanting to read something of his since hearing his brilliant interview on KCRW’s Bookworm. He’s got to be the only guy in the world who can use the phrase ‘dope short stories’ and not sound like an idiot. I haven’t read The Brief Life of Oscar Wao, which won him the Pulitzer, but I’ll be getting on that pretty fast.
As for This is How…, I’ve never read a book that combines such mad irreverence for language with moments of such transcendent beauty. It’s full of sex and death and impenetrable, unexplained Dominican slang. You don’t know what a rabo is until someone’s putting it into their mouth, you don’t know what mota is until someone’s smoking it until they can’t see, and all the time you’re asking ‘what’s a sucio? A papi chulo?’; ‘what does “figureando” mean?’
We piece together the clues, and most of the time when meaning emerges, it’s clear why the English isn’t used. My ignorance of Spanish wasn’t helping, of course, but there’s something really tantalising about having these words held above your head, like shiny fruit.
This is the immigrant experience, I guess Díaz is saying — he makes us navigate a language that jumps out of reach, that slips through our fingers. Many of us, probably most people reading this, will have spent their lives speaking ‘proper English’, the dialect that carries with it the most power, the officially sanctioned version.
Díaz, like Tom Leonard, uses his vernacular to put us in the position of the immigrant. We enter a world where words don’t belong to us, and quite apart from the lives of characters, who are compelling even when detestable, it’s this strange and wonderful texture that kept those pages turning.
This is How… is hard to categorise. It’s often described as a short story collection, and it does indeed contain short stories with a wide variety of characters, centring around the fracturing of relationships both romantic and familial.
But somewhere past the halfway point, you feel the eye of the author circling the same character, Yunior, and his mad-dog, cancer-riddled brother Rafa. Rafa, despite chemotherapy and worsening symptoms, refuses to let the fact of his disease grind down his self-destructive gangster lifestyle.
Sentimentality is nowhere. How could it be, when Yunior’s dying brother can still crack him with a padlock for disrespecting him? The whole thing is darkly funny, ludicrous and ludic, and at times deeply sad. And then there’s those moments of beauty. ‘This is what I know: people’s hopes go on forever’, one character tells us. She works in the laundry of a hospital, where the bloodstains of the dead and dying blossom like roses on the dirty sheets. Moments like this resonate. You put down the book. You look out the window. Then you pick up the book again. I’m serious: read it yesterday.