I feel like I missed something with this book, because I didn’t love it. I really liked Diaz’ previous book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Incredible writing, great character, compelling story, etc. This one still has Diaz’ unique writing style and even brings back one of the characters from Oscar Wao, and yet…
The book is sort of a loose collection of stories that together forms a novel and tells you the story of Yunior, a Dominican-American who can’t seem to be with one woman, regardless of what he feels for her. He’s sort of all emotion, all sex, all the time – not such a good combination. And this is his story.
Diaz once again creates an unforgettable character, only Yunior is a whole lot harder to like than Oscar. I’m not sure he has any redeeming qualities except for caring passionately about all of the women in his life. Except I’m not sure whether he really cares or he’s just being needy. Maybe the point is that it’s the women in his life who are really the interesting characters, he just goes through life trying to sleep with them.
It’s not really short stories, not really a novel. I like that contemporary authors seem to be playing with the novel/short story format in interesting ways, like Jennifer Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, where characters cross over into other parts of the book and time wraps around in strange ways but yet it’s still more like short stories than a novel.
I do love Diaz’ writing, the way he mixes Spanish and English together in such a way you feel like you understand it. It’s sort of an odd mix of poetry and obscenity and even when you have no idea what a word means, you still get the gist of it.
Let me tell you about Magda. She’s a Bergenline original: short with a big mouth and big hips and dark curly hair you could lose a hand in. Her father’s a baker, her mother sells kid’s clothes door to door. She might be nobody’s pendeja but she’s also a forgiving soul. Dragged me into church every Sunday for Spanish Mass, and when one of her relatives is sick, especially the ones in Cuba, she writes letters to some nuns in Pennsylvania, asks the sisters to pray for her family. She’s the nerd every librarian in town knows, a teacher whose students love her. Always cutting shit out for me from the newspapers, Dominican shit. I see her like, what, every week, and she still sends me corny little notes in the mail: So you won’t forget me. You couldn’t think of anybody worse to screw than Magda.
Here’s another example, just to give you the flavor of the writing:
You, Yunior, have a girlfriend named Alma, who has a long tender horse neck and a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans. An ass that could drag the moon out of orbit. An ass she never liked until she met you.
And this is where the title comes from. Yunior is caught cheating when Alma finds his journal. While she’s screaming at him,
Instead of lowering your head and copping to it like a man, you pick up the journal as one might hold a baby’s beshatted diaper, as one might pinch a recently benutted condom. You glance at the offending passages. Then you look at her and smile a smile your dissembling face will remember until the day you die. Baby, you say, baby, this is part of my novel.
This is how you lose her.
While I love the writing for its mix of multilingualism and colorful description, I still feel like I’m missing something, especially considering all the rave reviews and critical acclaim this book is receiving. This is one of 5 novels nominated for the 2012 National Book Award. Am I not reading deeply enough? Is Yunior really a man of great heart and character buried beneath all the superego and machismo? Yes, he bleeds. Yes, he gets his heart kicked in a few times. But he’s also a compulsive liar and cheater and at some points, a stalker to boot.
One thing I loved about Oscar Wao was that sense of being caught between two competing cultures (American and Dominican) and not fitting into either one. In some ways it’s the story every immigrant, and every child of an immigrant, faces. But I didn’t get a lot of that here.
And, maybe someone can explain the reason for the story in the center of the book, “Otravida, Otravez”, which is the only story told from a female point of view and not by Yunior. It’s a good story but I want structure, and I didn’t quite understand this story’s place in the collection.
Did you read this? What did you think?