This Is How You Lose Her

this is how you lose herJunot Diaz is a hit. I’m right, aren’t I? The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao came out in 2007 and it was like everyone was reading it. It was on all the literary best-of-the-best lists, and it won all these prizes — even the Pulitzer — and I tried to read it and I just couldn’t really get through it. It didn’t seem to say anything very original to me, and it felt like it was hiding that lack of originality behind some language (switching back and forth between Spanish-and profanity-sprinkled vernacular and nerdy academic prose) and some fictional strategies (footnotes, for instance) that also weren’t very original. But I didn’t finish it, so maybe I can’t judge; maybe it got really engaging toward the late-middle or the end.

So for Christmas my husband got This Is How You Lose Her, which is a book of Diaz’s short stories, and I thought I’d give Junot Diaz another try. I’ll say straight away that the language is mostly the same, probably because the narrator of most of the stories is Yunior, the apparently-omniscient narrator of Oscar Wao. (There are at least no footnotes.)

The stories are all about love. They are almost all about love going awry, which you probably could have gathered from the title of the collection, and they are mostly about love going awry because the guy wrongs the girl  in some way (usually cheating on her, but occasionally something else — getting sick, or leaving, or being bossy.) In this way, they are quite repetitive as far as story goes. The setting varies a little, and the quality of the stories varies a middling amount.

The best story, the one that feels most genuine, is the last: “The Cheater’s Guide to Love”. Same story arc, but it works out in a slightly different way this time, because here the cheating guy loses his ex on the first page, and the rest of the story is about the fallout. He can’t forget the real love he lost, and years later he’s still regretting his stupidity. In the meantime, he’s  learned something about wishful thinking, something about aging, and something about bending to his work. It’s not a piece of genius, but it’s a pretty good story. The runner-up is the only story in the collection that’s told by a female narrator: “Otravida, Otravez”. This story of a Dominican immigrant who works in a hospital laundry, the lover of a married man whose wife is still in Santo Domingo, is interesting for its everyday details and its barely-permitted underlayer of hope. Again, maybe not world-shaking, but not a bad story. The others seemed shallow to me. I had the same sense I did in Oscar Wao, that there was a substitution of language and code-switching for anything interesting happening in plot and character.

I don’t know. Am I missing something here? I kind of feel like with all these prizes and literary lionizing, there should be something… more? More complicated, more beautiful, more interesting? Who here can convince me I should love Junot Diaz?

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33 Responses to This Is How You Lose Her

  1. vanbraman says:

    I am a little over half-way through the book and have some of the very same thoughts. Why is this author so highly regarded? There are a few flashes of brilliance hidden here and there, but there is so much that is just not cohesive.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, skip to the last story and see what you think. I’ll be interested to see your reaction.

      • vanbraman says:

        The last story was more structured. After I started looking at the book as a collection of short stories they made more sense. I think all the stories had been published somewhere else before and they were pulled together for this book. I picked the book up as it had been mentioned as a possible Pulitzer winner for this year.

  2. lizzysiddal says:

    I’m baffled by the literary accolades as well, Jenny. I couldn’t finish this collection – I thought the stories foul and crude.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, normally bad language doesn’t trouble me at all, even if it’s just showboating (which this kind of is, in my opinion), but the repetitive objectification of women does get old. That’s why “Otravida, Otravez” was kind of a breath of fresh air.

  3. I have almost the exact same feelings. I just didn’t like This Is How You Lose Her. It was one of my least favorite books last year!

  4. Andi Miller says:

    I haven’t read either of his works. I just never had an interesting in Oscar Wao, and I’ve seen some pretty iffy reviews of This is How You Lose Her. He just sounds a bit like a one-tricky pony. Haven’t been too intensely interested in jumping into the fray. I think I’m more likely to try This is How You Lose Her, though. One day. Maybe. ;)

    • Jenny says:

      The nice thing about short stories is that they’re not a big investment. Try one, try three, see how you like the style. Abandoning a novel is harder for some people.

  5. I put off reading Oscar Wao for many reasons, but ended up loved it so much that I regret not having read it earlier. Having said that, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone without some strong caveats. Could I convince you? I think not. There’s nothing beyond the halfway mark that would make a difference in that respect. It seems to be one of those books that either clicks, or loses the reader entirely.

    What’s curious to me is that despite being enthralled by Oscar Wao, I just can’t muster any enthusiasm for This is How You Lose Her. I think your comment about the stories here being “repetitive” speaks to my indifference. Yunior (and his cheating ways) was the weak link for me in Oscar Wao. I don’t think I could deal with more of the same, and Diaz’s fundamental dependence on Yunior has me wondering if this author is just a one-trick pony.

    • Jenny says:

      You may be right that this is just a question of “clicking” with the book, but I doubt it. It wasn’t that I didn’t engage with the narrator, or didn’t understand it well. I just didn’t find Diaz pushing any boundaries of any kind — saying anything fresh about the human condition, or trying any new ways of saying it. But I’m glad you saw beyond what I did!

  6. I don’t know if you should be convinced. You’ve given him a game try—at one and a half books—and it’s not worked out. Taste is so brutally subjective, but I think it still surprises us when something so beloved doesn’t work out for us; we tend to question ourselves rather than simply stepping back and saying, “Well, we didn’t click.”

    • Jenny says:

      You’re right about that, Claire. I have a very subjective policy about reading, but I do still question whether it was my fault when I don’t like certain books. Sometimes it’s good when I do (as in the case of The Tale of Genji) and sometimes I just need to get over it. :)

  7. anokatony says:

    I agree, over-rated. I liked his first collection and first novel, but the second collection just seemed to be the same story from the first collection over and over.

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t think I knew he had a collection of stories other than this one. I knew he had a first novel (Drown, right?) but another collection of stories is news to me. Well, it doesn’t sound as if it and I are going to be very close friends.

  8. nicole says:

    I had the exact same problem here as you (and, it looks like, many others). I should say that I found it a very enjoyable read–I find the Yunior narrative funny and the stories, though only “okay to decent” as literature, fun and entertaining. But I was left wondering what I was missing, and with the ugly feeling that taking on a cheeky voice that’s not only cheeky but also “other” is giving these books some kind of “diversity bonus.” I wanted to find much more than that…

    • Jenny says:

      The thing is, I sort of feel as if you’ve got to do more than talk about immigrant experience these days in order even to merit that diversity bonus. (Ugh, but I know what you mean.) Immigrant experience is not news in literature. So I’m just wondering what everyone’s so excited about. What’s he got to say about human beings, within that set of experiences? I was looking for more.

      • nicole says:

        Well I definitely think you should have to do more…I was just left without much to think was exciting here other than some amount of exoticism. I mean, other than entertainment. I really don’t think it did go beyond that to, as you and I both wanted, say anything new.

  9. alenaslife says:

    I just started this book yesterday and am a little disheartened by your words. Yunior’s is a perspective on the world I don’t hear often, so in that way it feels fresh to me, but I’m not blown away or anything. I guess I’ll have to get further in before I can form an opinion.

  10. gaskella says:

    Not for me I think. I got rid of my copy of Oscar Wao…

  11. I tried reading Oscar Wao and only got about 50 pages into it. The Spanish conversations confused me because I had no idea what they were talking about so I was missing some things, but I also just didn’t care about the characters. I really want to understand what people love about it, but I just can’t. I’m definitely skipping this one. Too many other things to read that I’m sure I will like!

    • Jenny says:

      I could more or less keep up with the Spanish (I read a tiny bit of Spanish and a lot of French and could guess from context.) But mostly I just didn’t connect with the story. I agree with your conclusion — too many other things to read. I have otherwise really started the year off with a bang, reading-wise!

  12. Scott Bailey says:

    I bought Oscar Wao after it won the Pulitzer and I put it back on the shelf after reading the first chapter or so. About a month later I read the whole book but, like a lot of others here, I just don’t see what the fuss is all about. There are (as you and Nicole discuss above) plenty of writers who are coming from a non-European non-white perspective, and it seemed that because Diaz was using recent DR history as nothing but setting (that is, by merely invoking the history as a backdrop without examining or really engaging with it), Diaz failed to give that aspect of the novel any real significance. And the foreground events weren’t much in the way of interesting. It’s similar to the way Jon Franzen drops in a reference to iPods without thinking much about the people who use iPods, as if by having Katz rant for three paragraphs about Apple, Franzen was suddenly making his book an in-depth examination of American culture. Readers are expected to mistake this sort of thing for meaning, but it’s just the appearance of meaning, all sound and fury signifying nothing.

    I kept thinking that Diaz’ prose was not very good (I can forgive a lot of things, but not page upon page of clunky prose), and Diaz tacks five additional endings onto the book, making his way bit-by-bit to a Hollywood ending. What was that about, Junot? Oscar Wao is a mess of a novel with not much at heart, so I have no interest in reading This is How You Lose Her. I didn’t mean to be so negative, but this just came spilling out.

    • Jenny says:

      You mention Franzen, and I felt the same way when I read Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated — though I liked that book better than Diaz’s. It felt like razzle-dazzle without a lot of thought about people or meaning. It’s not that new techniques have to do that to a book, but if you haven’t got guts in the book, it isn’t going to turn out well.

      And don’t worry about being negative around here, Scott. I’m interested in thinking about books, actually.

  13. No one has mentioned geek culture. Diaz flatters the geeks. Epigrams from Fantastic Four, stuff like that.

    How that gets you a MacArthur, though, I don’t know. Because that’s your question, right: this gets someone a MacArthur, but not Little, Big?

    • Jenny says:

      Yep, that’s my question, though I was asking it in isolation, rather than in comparison. I read so much that is so exquisite. Why are people getting excited about this at all, let alone instead?

  14. Pingback: This is How You Lose Her – a new review « alenaslife

  15. boardinginmyforties says:

    Someone left this one out in the break room at work. I glanced through it and it just didn’t grab me. Maybe he’s not for me either but I will plan to give him a try at some point.

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