Let me tell you about Magda. She's a Bergenline original: short with a big mouth and big hips and dark curly hair you could lose a hand in. Her father's a baker, her mother sells kids' clothes door to door. She might be nobody's pendeja but she's also a forgiving soul. A Catholic. Dragged me into church every Sunday for Spanish Mass, and when one of her relatives is sick, especially the ones in Cuba, she writes letters to some nuns in Pennsylvania, asks the sisters to pray for her family. She's the nerd every librarian in town knows, a teacher whose students love her. Always cutting shit out for me from the newspapers, Dominican shit. I see her like, what, every week, and she still sends me corny little notes in the mail: So you won't forget me. You couldn't think of anybody worse to screw than Magda. (p. 5)
Ever know (or been) one of those guys, that confused yet confident, bold yet timid, sweet and adorable asshole son-of-a-bitch who just takes forever to understand that he's a (if not the) cause in all sorts of relationship fuck ups? There's something about them that's fascinating, like watching a NASCAR race, waiting for the inevitable crash after left turn after left turn leaves them right back to where they started from. Why do these dolts ever become cool in the first place? Surely it cannot be for the dim views they have on women and (ultimately) themselves, can it?
These questions lie near the heart of Dominican-American (the hyphen is essential here) writer Junot Díaz's second collection, This is How You Lose Her. Over the course of nine stories, we follow the course of Yunior (who has made prior appearances in both Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) as he fucks, fucks around, and fucks up, often in spectacular fashion. Yet although Yunior appears throughout these stories, he is not as much the "central" character as he is the perpetually peripheral personage whose interactions with a wide variety of women, Dominican, other Latina, and American-born, serve to underscore their characters and situations.
"The Sun, the Moon, the Stars," the first story, sets the stage for the various ways in which Yunior's relationships collapse. Yunior has taken up with a Cuban octoroon, Magda, that he had first met when both were in college at Rutgers. Notice the way in which Yunior describes her, with a mixture of awe and sexualized objectification. She is the saintly soul with the sinful body, the hot, the crazy, the sweet and unknowable. Magda fascinates Yunior, even though he never comes to understand her. As he narrates their slow breakup after he cheats on her with a co-worker (who then proceeds to mail a description of the not-so-great sex to Magda), it becomes painfully clear that in his self-justification after self-justification, after moments of acting protective of her while failing to understand her grief during their "honeymoon" in the Dominican Republic, that Yunior will never understand her, even as he relates her latter views of him as a "sucio" and an asshole.
This failure by Yunior to recognize (or rather, to admit, as it becomes apparent later on that he has some self-awareness of his role in these relationship collapses) his inability to understand the women around him finds a mirror in the story "Otravida, Otravez", which deals with a young woman, Yasmin, and her lover Ramón, as they settle into a dilapidated house in New Jersey. The story turns on letters that arrive from the Dominican Republic, missives from the family that Ramón abandoned when he immigrated to the United States. Told through Yasmin's PoV, the impending heartbreak is poignant precisely because we see its inevitability coming each step of the way.
The most powerful story of the collection perhaps is "The Pura Principle," in which Yunior's sick brother, Rafa, Rafa's questionable girlfriend Pura, and Yunior and Rafa's mother. Here Díaz tells perhaps the most complex tale in the collection, that of a son who while dying has taken up with a woman who seeks to use him as a sponge, drawing into herself what Rafa possesses with his family. It's a story of a mother's love for her favorite, a younger brother's confusion over how to view the relationship, and an older son's mixture of love and disrespect for his mother. There are no easy ways out in this sort of situation and Díaz does not try to take one. Instead, as the story unfolds, the various connections and dividing points between the three family members become more apparent, with the girlfriend Pura near the center of this tangled web, feeding like a bloated spider.
Each of the nine stories contain their own twists and turns to the idea of relationship collapses. Although six of the nine stories originally appeared in The New Yorker or Glimmer Train, there is an internal cohesion between the stories, as they are in a sort of thematic dialogue with one another, teasing out and exploring different aspects of relationship dynamics to explore. The women in particular stand out in their varied approaches to the jerks and not-so-lovable losers that surround them. By book's end, there is the sense that in telling of how the men have "lost them," that really at least half of the story is about how the women are more than just objects of affection; they are dynamic characters in their own right. Díaz's portrayals feel true to life not just because he is talented with mixing formal and informal speech and description, but also because his characters convey the sense that these are very real situations being acted out in the barrios and neighborhoods, not just in New Jersey or the Dominican Republic, but universally as well. This is How You Lose Her is the strongest of the five National Book Award finalists as a result of these elements all being done so expertly.