This is how you lose her: you never acknowledge that you’re dating; you have sex with a coworker; you have sex with someone else, detailing the event in your easily discovered journal; you never contact her again; you photograph her sleeping naked; you have sex with dozens of someone elses, their emails festering in your trash bin; you turn her friends and relatives against you; you finally leave the city but sing out your remorse on her machine nightly, no longer expecting a response. Yunior, the DR-born, Jersey-raised writer doing the losing in eight out of the nine stories in Junot Díaz’s new short story collection, is an expert. And though Díaz is candid about Yunior’s complicity in his own romantic misfortunes, he uses the shuffled fragments his narrator’s experience to build an entire community of damaged women and compulsive men, where what hounds Yunior isn’t an isolated case of putada but the sweeping “momentum of the past,” an old, insidious malaise.
In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Díaz materialized the malaise, called it fukú, and dashed between narrators and eras. In the half-decade since his one and only novel, in magazine interviews and NYU seminars (in which I enrolled), fukú has gone by the more academic designation of colonialism and its legacy of violence, sexual and otherwise. This is consistent with what’s most immediately noticed and discussed about his writing: the jouncing brow, the easy pivot between Spanish and English, the intermingling of scholarly Theory-ese and the lavishly profane. With the exception of the slower, lyrical voice of Yasmin (in “Otravida, Otravez”), a young woman working in a hospital’s laundry room, who reads “through the stains and marks they leave on the sheets…the alphabet of the sick and dying,” the rest of the narration is Yunior’s, and Yunior is a likeable guy, at least at first. His accounts proceed so smoothly, so conversationally, that it’s tempting to tread quickly along their surfaces, listening as you would in a bar to particularly eloquent friend who, it occurs to you, sometimes, vaguely, is kinda…pathological.
Take Nilda, of “Nilda,” for a short while Rafa’s girlfriend. Rafa, Yunior’s malignant older brother, “would sneak her down into our basement bedroom…and do her to whatever was on the radio right then,” with Yunior present. But even before that, fourteen-year-old Nilda had run away from her drunk mother and gone through several older boyfriends and a group home. The two begin to date after a school bus encounter in which Rafa “had his hand so far up her skirt it looked like he was performing a surgical procedure.” Yunior is half in love with Nilda himself, but of course nothing happens between them; Rafa moves on, then dies of cancer, and by the time Yunior runs into Nilda years later, she’s been ditched, beaten, and is missing teeth. Yunior’s remembrance of Nilda ends, sharply, with an “I don’t know where the fuck she went.” The rancor is sudden and bewildering. What inspires hate about a woman whose history is an almanac of woe? The curse, here and elsewhere, is an index, a place to get stuck and swing around, returning, and, if necessary, rereading.
“A lot of the things that happened to [Nilda] had nothing to do with me or my brother,” Yunior says, protesting too much. The moment echoes the opening claim of the book’s first story (“The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” the account of a relationship Yunior torpedoes by cheating): “I’m not a bad guy.” Like the fukú, Yunior’s conviction is long-lasting; in college, confronted with his journaled infidelities, he claims that “this is part of my novel,” and years after an adolescent affair with a local teacher, he searches for her with a photograph no one recognizes. It takes him, in the concluding story “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” the six years after his engagement disappears but love doesn’t, to begin to acknowledge the craters that patriarchy has left on the surface of his life. Díaz’s great accomplishment, made of the interstices between stories as much as of the text itself, is that the realization necessarily takes all those years and failures; it couldn’t have come sooner. Yasmin, whose lover still receives letters from his abandoned wife, says: “This is what I know: people’s hopes go on forever.” Within shifting contexts and languages, Díaz knots the ligaments we are convinced constitute us, the ties we tug tighter though they sit snugly on the throat. Most of these stories aren’t all he can give, and many will have already encountered several in the pages of the New Yorker, but while we wait for the next novel and our own slow-release epiphanies, Yunior’s catastrophes are worth reliving. “The world, you tell yourself, will never end.”
–Elina Mishuris is in a perpetual state of cat-sitting.