Short Work by Chelsea BiekerShort Work

A Start is All We Ever Get:

Diaz' Heartbreak Manifesto

By Chelsea Bieker

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diazwant to talk about Junot Diaz' short stories without talking about his Pulitzer Prize, his well-known novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, his charming personality, or his sensational reading voice. I want to tell you about the stories and not mention the reaction my students in Intermediate Fiction had when they read the piece "Alma," (nearly all of them loved it—felt connected to it in that great way that surpasses required reading) and I would like to write an objective account of the language, the craft elements, the perfect execution of the second-person point-of-view. I wouldn’t mention how he came to Portland State last spring and spoke candidly with a group of MFA students about writing and inspired the room in a palpable way. How he cussed a lot, and was hilarious, warm and kind to each of us, and it was an amazing experience to meet him.

Truly, in reading, none of these things should matter. When I purchased his recent collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her, I told myself I would read them for the text on the page—I wouldn't carry the book around and love it before I cracked the cover (I may have) and I wouldn't read them in the tone of his highly entertaining and expressive voice (once you hear him read—try to hear anything else) and I would not just admire the stories blindly because it's Junot Diaz and he is awesome, but read with a critical eye, careful of blind consumption.

Despite my pre-reading aspirations, by the time I got to the last piece in the collection, "The Cheater's Guide to Love," nothing was in my control. I was nauseous with despair, empathizing with Yunior, (the young Dominican man around which every story orbits) who cheated on his fiancé with fifty sucias, who is incredibly flawed, but beautifully human, and I thought, Yes, this is what fiction can do—what it should do. Yunior ticks off the years trying to win back the woman he hurt. We see him attempt recovery, and fail. We see him begin to write a book about his transgressions: "In the months that follow, you bend to the work, because it feels like hope, like grace, and because you know in your lying, cheater's heart that sometimes a start is all we ever get." It’s a nod to a change of sorts, an acceptance of his misstep, but never a dodge of his pain.

Diaz doesn't offer Yunior a pleasant way out, but rather a movement toward a new view. This journey evolves within each story, culminating to a powerful and aware ending. The collection is beyond fanfare. The stories do everything good stories must do. I forgot I was reading, and entered a fictional dream with ease. Diaz has a knack for dialogue, humor, and, well, everything, maybe. I was totally and completely in step with Yunior, and I wished badly for his restoration, for his heart, so clearly broken, to be healed. And I thought, How did Diaz do this to me?

But in every story, he did.

In the epigraph, Diaz quotes writer Sandra Cisneros—"Okay, we didn't work, and all memories to tell you the truth aren’t good. But sometimes there were good times. Love was good. I loved your crooked sleep beside me and never dreamed afraid. There should be stars for great wars like ours." In some way each story was a war—a war of love, deep regret, missed opportunity—the interesting dichotomy of extreme self-loathing and a simultaneously inflated ego—all playing into this almost novelesque collection. We are shown portraits of Yunior, often in the second or first person point-of-view, and though his inner thoughts and musings about his world, and females particularly, are at times astoundingly terrible, sexist, belittling, and disrespectful if taken line by line, they work together to create this layered character who is so complicated, so full of energy, that for me, he became a picture of raw heartache. Amidst Yunior's faulty beliefs and actions, he was likable. I rooted for him despite my judgment or moral regard.

In the end, everything I know of Diaz' past works, his stage presence, the things he says about craft, all play into my read of this collection. But only in the best ways. And I know that, like some of my students who encountered Diaz for the first time reading "Alma" learned, his work is affecting and striking whatever way you slice it. It will do something to you. And what more can you ask of short fiction if not to alter the way you see the world a bit, to ruffle your feathers and slap you across the face? This is How You Lose Her does this with distinction and, yes, a whole lot of heart.

Chelsea Bieker is a fiction writer currently at work on a collection of stories. Her work has recently appeared in The Normal School and The Collagist. Her review of Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child appeared in Propeller in the fall of 2011.