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Sentimental Education: How Junot Díaz Learned to Love

JUNOT DIAZ’S CULTURAL in-betweenness, his themes of dislocation and fractured identity, often get him lumped into the category of “immigrant lit.” Several years ago, NPR hosted Díaz—who emigrated from the Dominican Republic at the age of six—along with Jhumpa Lahiri and Joseph O’Neill in a discussion of “what it means to be American.” But Díaz’s style has little in common with O’Neill or Lahiri, or even with Latin American novelists such as Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez. These are writers who use sentimentality as a narrative engine. The confrontation between the new and old worlds is meditative and wistful, even when the memories are dark. “All I hear is my own breathing and the blessed silence of those cool, clear nights under the anacahuita tree before anyone breathes a word of the future,” writes Julia Alvarez in In The Time of The Butterflies, which, like Díaz’s work, deals with the brutalities of Trujillo’s regime in the Dominican Republic. For Alvarez, culture clash plays out gently and internally; the immigrant experience is a quiet kind of reckoning. For Díaz, it is noisier and more violent. He buries all sentimentality in prose that is sharp and profane and aggressively male.

And so it is perhaps more worthwhile to compare Díaz to another literary tradition: the macho writers in the vein of Hemingway and Mailer and Martin Amis. These are authors for whom masculinity is a kind of boast, the origin of their pride; and also a hermetically self-satisfied worldview in which women and booze and sporting events are objects of equal carnal attention. The novels of Mailer and Amis are one-way mirrors through which we watch men deploying their testosterone-fueled urges and indulging their casual misogyny. “I realize, when I can bear to think about it, that all my hobbies are pornographic in tendency,” says John Self in Amis’s Money. “The element of lone gratification is bluntly stressed.” These characters might at times seem lonely or pathetic, but beneath it all there is a brutish romance to the figure of the solitary male.

In some ways, Díaz directly borrows from this tradition. The protagonist of most of the stories in Díaz’s latest collection, This Is How You Lose Her, is Yunior—the same Yunior who narrates Díaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) and much of Díaz’s first short story collection, Drown (1997). Yunior can be read as the consummate Dominican macho: hip, vulgar, streetwise. His brother Rafa even more directly embodies the type. Rafa discards girls at the first twitch of boredom. He revels lazily in his status as man of the house. “Rafa would detach himself [from his girlfriend] and cowboy-saunter over to Mami and say, You got something for me to eat, vieja? Claro que sí, Mami’d say, trying to put her glasses on.” Even when Rafa is gravely sick with cancer, he continues to bring girls home, sneaking them down to the basement. 

But it would be wrong to claim testosterone as the driving force behind all of Díaz’s fiction. His motives are more conflicted. Díaz’s characters are endlessly chasing girls, and abusing them, and losing them, and missing them, and chasing them again. They are part tough-talking Caribbean playboys, part reluctant romantics. Maleness and femaleness circle each other in his writing as two diametric emotional forces. In interviews Díaz even displays some of this tension himself. In New York magazine a few months ago, he reminisced melancholically about his former fiancée in one breath and then admitted to cheating on half his girlfriends in the next. He once told NPR that he “wasn’t really encouraged to imagine women as fully human” as he was growing up. “I had a very hypermasculine childhood and very effete dreams,” he recently remarked in Publishers Weekly. Here he might have been describing the intense, jangling energy of his fiction: the macho prose revved up with lust and ego, with its disarmingly tender core.

Díaz has always been interested in the complexities of gender-based confrontation. Both Drown and Oscar Wao are fundamentally concerned with the search for what Díaz has called “decolonial love,” or love that is entirely free from the Caribbean legacy of rape and violence. But This Is How You Lose Her is about relationships more generally: infatuations, games of seduction, the annihilating pain of breaking up. And so this book most fully represents the collision of male and female, swagger and vulnerability, coolness and warmth that is central to Díaz’s particular voice.

Yunior is not, in the end, like his brother. His machismo contains a note of rueful self-awareness. “Alma” and “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” are cautionary second-person tales about unfaithfulness and its consequences. “Flaca” touchingly recounts Yunior’s fling with a white girl—“Miss Lora,” his affair with an older woman and the sentimental education that she offers. The first line of the book’s opening story sets up the divide between Yunior’s self-image and the way he is seen by the women in his life: “I’m not a bad guy,” he says. “Magdalena disagrees though. She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole.” “I know this sounds like a load of doo-doo, but it’s true: Magda’s my heart,” he says at another point. And then, just paragraphs later: “My boys were like, Fuck her, don’t sweat that bitch.” Such contradictions confer a complex power upon Diaz’s narrative.

The short story as a form, though, can make Díaz’s manipulations seem too slick and easy. The pieces in This Is How You Lose Her are seductive extracts from Yunior’s inner life; they dip into dark psychic places and gracefully withdraw. Since the short story pushes concision and restraint, the emotional frequencies that Díaz strikes here sometimes feel artificially heightened. The beauty of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao lies partly in its ranging knottiness and the depth of its relationships. It forces Díaz to be more patient with his romances, to dispose of them less quickly, to see them from their origins to their messy ends. This Is How You Lose Her is a bit too convenient in its dismissal of the feelings that it dredges up. Take the conclusion to “Nilda,” a sharp, sensitive story about an ex-girlfriend of Rafa’s whom Yunior had quietly loved: “We never spoke again. A couple of years later I went away to college and I don’t know where the fuck she went.” Díaz starts to stir up sentiment and then coolly undercuts it.

Still, it is hard to overstate the sad loveliness of moments like this one: after Yunior runs into Nilda at the laundromat, he wonders why she looms so large in his own memory, long after his brother has died. “It was only one summer and she was nobody special,” he thinks, “so what’s the point of all this? He’s gone, he’s gone, he’s gone.” In such lines we see just how essential the figure of the girlfriend is to the figure of the macho. She softens him, she stymies him, she draws him out, she wears him down. The story may belong to Yunior, but without the women, of course, he would have no stories to tell.

If the heart of the macho novel is a savageness, a cold self-reliance, the heart of This Is How You Lose Her is an earnest kind of dependency. The women in Yunior and Rafa’s lives sustain them; women feed their various appetites, both literal and sexual. While Díaz’s writing oozes maleness, the female figure is its emotional center: the girlfriend, acquired or desired; and the mother, tolerant and steadfast, anchoring the whole male world. The women of This Is How You Lose Her—adored, abandoned, self-sacrificing—are the source of its quiet pathos. Díaz pits toughness and tenderness against each other, each offsetting the other’s emotional weight. His machismo is a way to sharpen his sentimentality, to make it somehow starker and more alive.

Laura Bennett is a staff writer at The New Republic.