Sunday, December 16, 2012

Review: "This Is How You Lose Her" by Junot Diaz

Another late review of another very recent book, Junot Diaz's "This Is How You Lose Her" (2012). At this rate I'm going to be putting together a Best Books of 2012 list! (I'm not actually going to make that. I read books to escape from the endless chasing of trends and fads, not to wallow in it. Books enable us to slow down and ponder; trying to read everything in the zeitgeist defeats the purpose, in my opinion.)

Diaz won the Pulitzer back in 2007 for "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," which I also read and thoroughly enjoyed. I learned a great deal about the history of the Dominican Republic, specifically about the reign of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the island nation with blood and terror from 1930 to 1961. And I especially liked "Oscar Wao" because Diaz relied heavily on fantasy and science fiction analogies to explain the complex politics and history of Trujillo's Santo Domingo.

"Lose Her" is a much more intimate novel. Written as a series of interconnected short stories, the book centers around the narrator Yunior, who can't stop screwing around on his girlfriend Magda. She leaves him and he just can't seem to get over it, even though he was the one who kept a truly shocking number of sucias on the side.

"Sucia" and the masculine "sucio," as near as I can tell, means "slut." With Google Translate, it would be extremely easy for me to look up the exact meanings behind all of the Spanish words and phrases scattered throughout Diaz's prose--in fact, others who've read Diaz tell me they get frustrated because they keep stopping to look up definitions--but I don't bother. One, because context usually provides clues to meaning, and two, because I know the teensiest bit of Spanish and can figure most phrases out if I give it a moment's thought. I don't often try, though. Diaz hits that sweet spot of just enough Spanish words, but not too many of them, making prose that is both readable and slightly mysterious. We can peek through the windows into these characters' world, but can't just walk in through the front door whenever we please.

Another thing I like about the Spanish-English prose is that it really gives the impression of Diaz writing for an audience of Dominican Americans. I'm always slightly bothered by authors who go to foreign countries and write about the people in those countries, because those authors aren't writing for those people; they're writing for other (white) people at home to better understand the "foreigners." That's why Isabella Bird's "The Hawaiian Archipelago" didn't get an A on my rating system and why Leslie Marmon Silko's "Ceremony" did.

Ah, hell, I didn't review "The Hawaiian Archipelago" yet? I so clearly remember building that post in my mind. Is it possible I just thought about it so hard that I completely forgot to actually write it? This is my real problem with having a book blog: I read too much. Every time Saturday rolls around, I've got about three books I've finished that week that I can review, so I pick one and tell myself I'll review the others the next time around--by which time I've finished three more books! I'm going to have to write more reviews. Or read less books, I guess.

Where was I? Right, Junot Diaz's "This Is How You Lose Her" reads like a book written by and for an audience of Dominican Americans, and I very much enjoy that kind of writing. There's a whole sub-genre of Pidgin literature in Hawaii that seeks to legitimize the language and culture of local residents descended from the East Asian and Pacific Rim immigrants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I took a class on Pidgin Lit in college and learned a lot about how language shapes cultural and individual identity.

For example, if Diaz had used the English word "slut" instead of "sucio" or "sucia," the true meaning of the term would have been lost. "Slut" has all sorts of cultural and moral baggage attached to it, but it's the baggage of the English-speaking society from which it originates. "Sucio" has an entirely different meaning and significance for the Spanish-speaking society that uses it. Swapping "sucio" for "slut" doesn't work because each society has different attitudes toward sex and morality. For one thing, "slut" applies only to women and has no male equivalent, whereas "sucio/sucia" is both masculine and feminine depending on the suffix and can apply to either gender. That right there says a lot about the different ways sexuality is expressed and viewed in the English- and Spanish-speaking cultures that Diaz explores in his work.

This brings us back to the plot of the book. Yunior is muy sucio, as was his father, his brother, and all of his friends. They all have clandestine sex and sometimes even children outside of their primary relationships, and they measure the strength of their masculinity by the number of women they fuck. How the women feel about this behavior doesn't matter to them, because they figure they can always find another woman if one leaves them in disgust. Yunior finds the flaw in this logic when the woman who leaves him is the one woman he desperately wants to keep, and no girlfriend he finds afterwards can replace her.

I see some similarities between Yunior and Madame Bovary, who also slept around on her partner out of ill-defined boredom and a desire to make her life fit the pattern of some archetypal romantic heroine. However, Madame Bovary models her sexual life on the trashy romance novels she reads. Yunior models his behavior on his real-life family and peers, which makes his situation almost more hopeless than hers because he has the tacit encouragement and approval of everyone around him to keep acting like a cheating piece of shit, even when it costs him everything. 

"This Is How You Lose Her" isn't a very happy book, but it is a realistic one that thoroughly explores the damaged psyche of a man who lost a good woman because of his society's poisonous attitudes toward sex and relationships. We can file this one away under the "sexism hurts men, too" umbrella. Patriarchy--it's a bitch.

Final Grade: B. Recommended for those who like a tragic love story, seeing a cheater get what's coming to him, or exploring the dark side of sexism from the perspective of someone who benefits from it.

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