Junot Diaz’s new fiction challenges yet delights

Jacob Wilson/Staff

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Published in an August issue of The New Yorker, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” is a postmodern affair that should be taken with a grain of salt.  A cheater’s guide to love? The idea is laughable, as is his titular proposition: You’re going to allow the exact antithesis of love to educate you on love, the most mysterious of human emotions. As he begins his tale about heartbreak and, to a lesser extent, infidelity, Junot Diaz stands with palms facing upward, eyes imploring a silent, “Hear me out; just hear me out.”

Hearing him out is a good idea. “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” is but one story in Diaz’s newest story collection “This is How You Lose Her.” Nine stories of love and loss comprise his third major literary publication, a follow-up to the 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which itself extrapolated on themes explored in his 1996 short story collection “Drown.” The New Yorker release was an appetizer for anyone interested in delving once again into the Dominican author and MIT professor’s distinctive writing style. But why prepare his audience with a most unpalatable topic?

Simply put, it is because Diaz has never been one to cater to anyone’s sensibilities but his own. Diaz does unpalatable very well. His fiction is akin to the oyster —  it’s slippery and elusive on the tongue, and some shy away from the shellfish. Certain readers, particularly those of the pseudo-intellectual variety, may scoff at Diaz’s Spanglish colloquialisms and, particularly in a story like “Cheater’s Guide,” his use of the second person and vignettes. “It’s like he’s trying too hard to be postmodern,” is an easy, dismissive criticism of his work.

But that’s too reductive. “This is How You Lose Her,” is not some fustian masturbatory endeavor. Yunior, the protagonist of Diaz’s stories, is the author’s thinly disguised alterego, a Dominican young man whose romantic affairs weigh on him like infidelity on a relationship.

Read about Yunior to read about Diaz. The short stories are a DNA double helix because so much of “Lose Her” is entrenched in Yunior’s relationship with his brother, Rafa, who battles cancer with all the bellicosity of a spry Manny Pacquiao. This mirrors Diaz’s real-life brother’s fight against cancer. Diaz promises fractured love stories, but he cheats on this promise, delivering something else entirely — an honest account of one man’s weakness in the face of love.

The stories, mostly named after women, detail Yunior’s failed romantic affairs. There’s the time he cheated on Alma, “the comic-book-reading alternatina,” who  discovers his betrayal in his journal. He smiles and assures, “This is part of my novel.” If there’s such a thing as the literary fourth wall, Diaz demolishes it with abandon. His real-life love affairs are part of his fiction; his fiction is his reality. You wonder if he really did sleep with his high school teacher, as detailed in “Miss Lora.”

However, to speculate on the nonfictional quality of Diaz’s fiction is a disservice to the collection. Though you may start off the volume as a distrustful girlfriend searching for incriminating traces of illicit love — “Junot’s a liar! He’s a postmodern charlatan! I bet Alma’s right and he does have a small penis!” — you close the book in a more sympathetic mindset. “Hear me

out,” Diaz pleads. There’s a reward for those who heed the plea. Diaz’s strength lies in his weakness — he is all too human, betraying his emotions with the poignant vulnerability of a cheater. Who knew the unfaithful could write such faithful representations of love and loss?

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