i never talked about the brief wondrous oscar wao, even though i knew almost instantly it was one of my favorite books, because it was too perfect, there was too much, it was too dazzling and too shattering and i couldn’t wrap my mind around it. at this point i’ve talked a lot about this is how you lose her, which is less broad than oscar wao in external scope though not in emotional range or depth but i’m struggling, still, to tackle the whole.
although it would be cheap to blame my own failure at coherence on the book’s form, it might at least be considered fitting that i can look at it in pieces but not as a piece: it’s a collection of linked short stories, told without linear chronology, jumping among voices and tenses and moods but — with one exception, in a story that has perhaps the best female voice i have ever seen from a male author — centered on a single character, creating a fragmented portrait of a fractured person.
so let’s start there, with yunior, our nowhere-close-to-a-hero. what i said about him when i read drown stands. i, a person who flinches coming across the word “breasts” in fiction because of how tired i am of women’s bodies being relevant, could read yunior’s voice with endless patience at his examinations and explorations of women’s bodies. three books of him now and i’m still a little bewildered at how diaz accomplished this. partly i think it’s that yunior’s love of women’s bodies is pretty near unconditional, so that his gaze doesn’t feel discriminatory. but it’s also that even in the stories where we barely glimpse them, diaz writes women so well, so humanly, with so much compassion, that i feel safe with him as an author. in the glow of his empathy for women i feel like i can let my guard down enough to extend empathy back at yunior.
i found myself thinking, reading yunior’s street-smart patter talking about his brother’s cancer, the more lyrical remembrance of their first winter in the united states, all these shifting lenses coloring the person beneath but never without recognition, of my high school acting teacher, the way he would tell us you need to know more about your character than the audience will ever find out. the audience doesn’t need to know whatever secret ambitions or haunted memories your character carries; but the specifics of what a person carry inform what you see. you need to know what your character holds inside to lend depth to their reactions, to convince the audience you are a person with a full life no matter how much of it remains a mystery. that’s the kind of intimate knowledge diaz has with yunior: a richness of understanding so that his performance feels stunningly unperformed. he’s contradictory as a person but never inconsistent as a creation.
i mean, he is really inconsistent. i’m not sure how much i believe him when he says he loves the women he cheats on — or i know that i do and understand that to some degree i shouldn’t — but i believe that he believes himself. i believe he gets hurt, over and over, even as i know every single time was by his own cheating lying hand. again and again he’s left alone, and each time he deserves it and, to his small credit, would never claim otherwise. but then part of what makes this book so suffocatingly sad even through the joy of diaz’s flawless ear for the music of language is that it’s made clear, i think, that it goes the other way, too: he’s left alone, he sets himself up to be alone, because he thinks he deserves it, because he doesn’t believe he is worth better. even if he would never articulate it — and he almost does, in one moment that damn near broke me in two, but only once, in a story told in twenty pieces, in second person, a shattered mirror held at a distance — he sabotages his own quest for the love he wants more than he’d admit, always, because he can’t accept either the gift or its accompanying danger. he needs to have an out.
i mean i really love him. he can be such an asshole but i don’t know that i can think of a male character in fiction as dear to me — the comparison i always think of, because of the vividness of the voice, is huck finn, and he comes close, another child of poverty and abuse who never brings that part of his story into the spotlight. yunior is a conduit for so many generations of suffering, and even though the dominican republic features less prominently here than in diaz’s previous works (although it’s notable that the one story that takes us there is the first) there’s never any shaking it, where he comes from and what it gave him, what it gave his parents before him: a toxic masculinity, the grief of a people, a legacy of abuse, an immovable trauma. in the interview i linked here diaz talks about how rooted his work is in trauma and while it may not explain how many forms he shapes it into, it helps explain why the approach works so well. there are some things too painful to be anything other than unwieldy. some trauma is less a scar than a fault line. there’s no simple way to look at a person whom pain has split, no way to take in at one glance everything that broke them. in this is how you lose her yunior comes to us in pieces, one facet at a time of a D&D die, nowhere near the whole but maybe the best he can do, the longest he can stand to look at himself, never enough but the most he can give.