I used to divide my personality into two extremes: the philosopher and the poet. It was how I would defend myself when I did something to hurt someone. I argued that the hurt person had been wooed by my poet-self and hadn’t realized how frustratingly rational my philosopher-self could be.
Over time, I realized this distinction wasn’t satisfactory, and gradually began to consolidate the two selves. I think this consolidation was what drew me to hip-hop; if done right, the beauty of the lyricism and the story-telling (poetic) reveal some rational truth or argument about the world (philosophical).
It is this hip-hop aesthetic that draws me to Junot Díaz. Díaz’s most recent collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her does not shirk from this aesthetic. The collection focuses mostly on Yunior, Díaz’s narrator that he developed in both Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This collection, like Drown, has Yunior as the main character of most of the stories, but unlike Drown, many of the stories focus on Yunior’s early adult years.
Díaz’s prose is beautiful. Laden with slang, the pages have a beat to them. From the first paragraph, Díaz establishes himself as a language musician, effortlessly painting pictures with his rhythmic writing:
I’m not a bad guy. I now that sounds–defensive, unscrupulous–but it’s true. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good. Magdalena disagrees though. She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole. See, many months ago, when Magda was still my girl, when I didn’t have to be careful about almost anything, I cheated on her with this chick who had tons of eighties free-style hair. Didn’t tell Magda about it, either. You know how it is. A smelly bone like that, better off buried in the backyard of your life. Magda only found out because homegirl wrote her a fucking letter. And the letter had details. Shit you wouldn’t even tell your boys drunk.
I’m a sucker for this sort of thing.
Díaz’s language sets up one of many dichotomies that exists within his writing. Of course, Díaz’s entire task is to wreck these dichotomies. In this way the slang versus beauty distinction collapses into a truth in which his writing is beautiful because of his use of slang.
Similarly, Yunior waffles between stories of his youth in which racism manifests itself in terms of poverty and stories of his adulthood in which racism manifests itself in bigoted remarks from white people. This, too, is a false distinction. Both types of racism are undercurrents in all of the stories. The first type explains why he feels so alone in his adulthood and the second explains why he feels like such an outsider in his childhood.
Or there is the dichotomy that exists between Yunior and his older brother Rafa. When Rafa appears in the story, he foils Yunior in such a way that Yunior appears effeminate and bookish. Rafa is the model of manliness and is frequently characterized as a womanizer. But in the stories without Rafa, Yunior himself is a womanizer. A formula quickly appears: Yunior + Rafa = bookish Yunior, Yunior – Rafa = womanizing Yunior. But in the last story in the collection, Díaz obliterates this dichotomy as well. Yunior is a professor at Harvard by this time, but in the very beginning of “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” Yunior admits to sleeping with fifty women while dating his fiancee. In this story, Yunior is both bookish and womanizing.
Díaz also narrates two of the stories–“Alma” and “The Cheater’s Guide to Love”–in the second person. This option fits his simplistic style really well. And it complements Yunior’s self-deprecation.
The magic in Díaz is that somewhere in the stories about women and ex-girlfriends riddled with slang, we get truth–the sorrow and confusion in a brother’s death, the difficulties and triumphs of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, and, of course, lost love.