A Rake’s Progress

Morality at play Junot Diaz
Photo: CCL/Macarthur Foundation

ONE OF the stories in David Foster Wallace’s brilliant, funny collection, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, is titled ‘E— on “How and Why I Have Come to be Totally Devoted to S——— and Have Made Her the Linchpin and Plinth of My Entire Emotional Existence”’; the hideous man in the story in question begins, as do the hideous men in the others, with a variation on, “Let me explain. I’m aware of how it might sound, believe me. I can explain.”

In ‘The Sun, The Moon, The Stars’, the very first story of This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz’s often brilliant, often funny new collection, the narrator begins, “I’m not a bad guy. I know how that sounds — defensive, unscrupulous — but it’s true. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good.” Yunior, the speaker of these words — a character we have seen grow through Diaz’s work, his debut collection of stories and his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, into the ‘hideous man’ of these stories — has made the women he has cheated on and lost the linchpins and plinths of his entire emotional existence. These women whom he mourns and sentimentalises, their round, perfect asses that “exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans”, their “big mouth and big hips and dark curly hair you could lose a hand in”, are vivid to him only in memory, in loss. He reimagines, reconstitutes them as he must the Dominican Republic, the country he loses as a small boy.

Yunior’s pathological inability to be faithful to any of these women may be nature (“She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole”), may be nurture (in ‘Fiesta, 1980’, a story in Drown, Diaz’s first book, Yunior spends an hour watching TV while his father is upstairs with a mistress; “but you are your father’s son and your brother’s brother”, Yunior observes of himself in ‘Miss Lora’, the penultimate story in This Is How You Lose Her), or may be part of a pattern of loss. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Diaz says that there “is nothing like the trauma of losing one’s country and gaining another. It makes recollection very, very sharp”. Here, in his stories, that childhood trauma is repeated again and again as Yunior discards (even when he is discarded, it is self-immolation) girlfriend after girlfriend and then, even as he is in the midst of another doomed relationship, recalls with painstaking exactness the circumstances of that betrayal.

This Is How You Lose Her
Junot Diaz
Faber & Faber
224 pp; Rs 499

Here he is, again in ‘The Sun, The Moon, The Stars’, having just cheated on his girlfriend: “… I felt so lousy that I couldn’t sleep, even though she was one of those sisters whose body fits next to you perfect. I was like, She knows, so I called Magda right from the bed and asked her if she was OK.” Gender relations are governed, like any relations, by structures of power and privilege. If Yunior, as a young working class male of colour, the son of immigrants, has little power or privilege in any other aspect of his life in the US, in his relationships with women he is as rapacious, as predatory as any coloniser. And like any coloniser, Yunior is unaware of the damage he is doing, unwilling to face up to the nature of that damage. “I’m not a bad guy…” In these stories, he is often a parody of masculinity — a body builder and a philanderer of such prodigiousness that one girlfriend, a fiancée in fact, finds evidence of not one, five or even 10, but 50 extracurricular dalliances.

The last story in the collection, ‘The Cheater’s Guide to Love’, is the one in which Yunior is dumped by his fiancée, in which his cheating leaves him floundering for five years unable to get over the break-up and realising that “[t]he half-life of love is forever”. The collection has been building to this insight and when it comes you wonder how Yunior will cope, move past the wreckage of his history. Of course, the answer, as it has been in all Diaz’s work, is that you cannot, that you carry your history with you always.

Often, the men in Diaz’s books are lean, ropey with muscle. It is this hard, mean masculinity that Yunior keeps trying and failing to emulate

Having said that, the immigrant shares in common with the fiction writer an opportunity to take all that history and try and build something new. Diaz himself, like Yunior, came to the US, New Jersey specifically, as a small boy with his mother and siblings to join a father he had barely known. Like Yunior, he spoke no English when he arrived and his early life, in impoverished, hardscrabble neighbourhoods, couldn’t have held out much hope for a future as an acclaimed writer and professor at MIT. Only last month, Diaz was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, $5,00,000 to use as he sees fit, the popularly known ‘genius grant’ invaluable for a writer who in 16 years has produced one novel and two collections of short stories. But Diaz’s books percolate slowly; he inhaled science fiction as a boy, perhaps still does, and so each book is an extended exercise in ‘worldbuilding’, an attempt at liberation from an oppressive history, both national and personal.

HIS CHARACTER, Yunior, too must find a way to fashion a self, to overcome the damage inflicted by history. Masculinity is Diaz’s abiding concern and so naturally it is Yunior’s, who performs ‘manliness’ in the way it is expected of him, in the hyper macho masculinity of his Dominican culture. Often, the men in Diaz’s books are lean, ropey with muscle, like his father with his quick fists or his brother who, even riddled with cancer, sneaks girls into his mother’s basement. It is this hard, mean masculinity that Yunior keeps trying and failing to emulate. In ‘Miss Lora’, Yunior, a minor at the time, tells of a scarring affair with an older woman, a teacher. The affair is so idyllically presented that it takes a later girlfriend to remind the reader that “[t]hey should arrest that crazy bitch”. It is statutory rape and it is curious that in a book full of women of almost cartoonish femininity, plump of breast, lip, hip and ass, the distinctive physical feature of the teacher who ‘rapes’ Yunior is her “curvelessness”: “Bitch made Iggy Pop look chub… Always a bikini… the top stretching over these corded pectorals and the bottom cupping a rippling flank of haunch muscles.”

Diaz has spoken in interviews of the rape and sexual violence intrinsic to the history of the Caribbean, a history that includes in the case of the Dominican Republic the legacy left by the brutal, US-backed dictator Rafael Trujillo. Yunior, in a personal sense, is a victim of rape; it might explain in part, as does the larger narrative of rape in Caribbean history, his promiscuity, his propensity towards sexual betrayal. Except for ‘Otravida, Otravez’, told from the point of view of a woman making a new life with a man who already has a family back in the Dominican Republic, every story in This Is How You Lose Her is linked, culminating in a story that appears to offer the almost irrevocably damaged Yunior the possibility of a way out. It is through writing that Yunior might find redemption, as Diaz has, through the invention of a language with which to tell his story. It may not be enough for some, but there is enough to suggest that in the end Yunior is not one of Wallace’s hideous men. He is just lost, flailing for a moral compass as he searches for what it means to be a man.

Shougat Dasgupta is Literary Editor with Tehelka.
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