Junot 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?