The Philosopher and The Poet: Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her

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.

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The Privilege of Thinking About Work: Timothy Keller’s Every Good Endeavor

I come from a relatively small, sheltered, largely Christian community thick in the suburbs of southwest Ohio. It was a great place to grow up. It was safe and mostly friendly. Because of my community’s size and its religiosity, I was more or less peer pressured into faith. A solid majority of my school’s best students (the peer group with whom I most identified) were all Christian and it seemed a natural progression.

I practiced my faith rather dutifully (or so I thought) in high school, and when I got to college I decided I would fix all of the things that had kept me from truly experiencing God in high school so I immediately sought out and plugged into a community of believers. Things quickly turned sour. My campus was filled with new experiences, new people, new beliefs. And that was amazing.

On the other hand was my Christian community. While there were many upperclassmen whom I respected and loved, there also wasn’t anyone who was graduating and doing the things I wanted to do with my life. The community seemed to be set up to encourage those students who were interested in ministry-related careers, and I felt very little support for figuring out how to engage with my passions that weren’t so obviously related to the Church.

So I stepped away.

I didn’t think this community, and, by extension, Christianity could give me the kind of support I needed for the work I wanted to do.

A year and a half later, I started to tentatively reexamine my faith, this time without peer pressure. And I found this community where almost no one was considering ministry after graduation. And it was the best thing. (Although, it should be mentioned that there is nothing categorically wrong with communities that encourage ministry. They just aren’t for me!)

I tell this story because I just got done reading Timothy Keller’s most recent book Every Good Endeavor. The thesis of the book is that any profession and any type of work will be affected by following Christ. I wish I had this book three years ago.

The book is on point. It lays out a logical argument in which work is central to God’s creation (Adam and Eve worked in the Garden before the Fall, wouldn’t you know), in which all work is a form of worship to God, in which sin creates the many problems and pitfalls we experience in work, and in which God redeems our work even when it’s not perfect and even when we feel like we have fallen short.

Keller’s prose, as always, is suitably simplistic when in anecdote but approaches dullness when in abstraction. It’s okay, though, because his anecdotes are so good and so representative of his points that his abstractions often read as afterthoughts. The strongest moments in the book come when he can marry anecdote and abstraction.

For instance, he talks about the importance of the story of Esther–how she has the privilege of being “in the Palace” and that being in the Palace itself is no sin, but failing to use that position to help others is. This helped me conceptualize, in a Christian perspective, how I should be thinking about my own privilege, how I should confront it, and what I can do maximize its usefulness.

Keller talks a lot about the importance of serving others through work. Sometimes, however, I got the feeling that this talk was undermined by catering to a specific middle to upper class ethos. Sure, Keller mentions jobs like doorman or janitor but only to say that if you are employed in these jobs you should give them everything you have, just like in any other job. He largely misses realities of poverty in several important places.

He mentions Hurricane Katrina at one point, and says that the need to lay blame–on the builders of the sea wall or the federal government–is not a gospel need. But placing the blame on the sea wall is more important than trying to explain away an unexplainable thing. A lot of the tragedy of Katrina could have been avoided. It wasn’t avoided because large portions of the levee were incomplete, specifically those in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the poorest sections of the city. That is a systemic problem. It’s not a “oh Bobby made a mistake, we’ll fix it next time” mistake. It is important to talk about blame in this instance because it is related to justice and to ensuring everyone in the city has the same sense of security. That seems gospel related to me.

Later on in the book, Keller gives a brief history of philosophy, arguing that Christianity was responsible for the philosophical shift in personhood in which all people are important and equal. While that may be true in some very abstract and esoteric sense, it is historically misleading. Most of the Christian philosophers we read as part of modernism were extremely bigoted individuals. And these Christian philosophers were often (and are still often) used to justify inequality like slavery, the Holocaust, and other horrible atrocities. To gloss over this history and claim all of the good parts of human rights development over the past several centuries is dishonest.

There’s also this problematic passage near the end of the book:

Christians, you see, have been set free to enjoy working. If we begin to work as if we were serving the Lord, we will be freed from both overwork and underwork. Neither the prospect of money and acclaim, nor the lack of it, will be our controlling consideration. Work will be primarily a way to please God by doing his work in the world, for his name’s sake. (215)

This is a great sentiment, but it seems to make light of poverty, suggesting that people living in poverty are committing the same sin that people who live in opulence do–that is, approaching work for money. Which is a shame because there is an obvious difference between a single parent working three jobs to provide shelter and food for three kids and a CEO who wants a new yacht.

I got a lot out of this book. I learned a lot and it gave me a much broader idea of what it means to work for the kingdom of God, but I worry it hits maximum relevancy for people from the suburbs of southwest Ohio or the sky-rises of New York City.