Your Lying Cheater’s Heart

Rachelle Agundes, "Zebra Fell Apart", 2009, oil on canvas, 42 x 36 inches

Carmen María Machado

Junot Díaz’s This is How You Lose Her as a Confessional Text

The confessional text—either an author baring his own soul, or a fictional character coming clean about his or her particular version of events—has a long history, from The Confessions of St. Augustine to Nabokov’s Lolita. In the spirit of this genre comes Junot Díaz’s second short story collection, This is How You Lose Her, a sequence of bright, tight stories revolving around love’s many complications—infidelity, pregnancy, dissolving marriages, wounded families, the fact that true love is rare and can be lost forever. The sun in this particular universe is Yunior (of Díaz’s previous collection, Drown), a geeky jackass whose two most consistent qualities are cheating on his girlfriends and an unflappable optimism that he can get away with anything. The first story begins with the obligatory confessor’s disclaimer.

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.

And so Yunior sets out to prove this thesis to us. Each story, ordered emotionally rather than chronologically, documents some aspect of love in Yunior’s life—memories of his own girlfriends and lovers, recollections of his late brother’s wife, the deep chill of his first American winter and the neglect of his mother by his father, a story from the point of view of Yunior’s father’s mistress. The collection ends with a Proustian flourish: in the last paragraphs of the final story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” we realize that the entire book has been Yunior writing in response to the dissolution of his relationship with his fiancé. Not only have we been watching the evolution and creation of Yunior as a writer (and a philander, but we’ll get to that in a minute), we have just read one of his efforts.

This is How You Lose Her is Díaz’s third book—his first collection, Drown, came out in the mid-nineties, and his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008. I have heard more than one speculative writer talk about Díaz as if he is a sleeper agent on behalf of genre writers—sneaking in there, winning a Pulitzer, and about to drop a science-fiction novel, Monstro, on everyone’s heads. Like the author, Yunior is a sci-fi nerd—by the end of This is How You Lose Her he has moved on from being a teenager breathlessly consuming apocalypse movies and having end-of-the-world dreams to writing an apocalypse novel as an adult—but the genre that Díaz seems to be more interested in here is the confessional. And nestled inside of it, an antihero straight out of noir—the loveable rogue who acts helpless against a storm that is self-created; a character who tries to do the right thing occasionally but fails so badly you can’t help but wonder if he was really trying. He even describes some women as you’d expect from a half-drunk, hardboiled detective—except, instead of a dame in a red dress, she’s got “super-long hair, like those Pentecostal girls, and a chest you wouldn’t believe,” or she has “a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans,” or she’s a “chick” with “tons of eighties free-style hair.” Some of these women are rounded, humanized. Others are flat on the page, an amalgamation of significant body parts, sex acts, and nagging, sulking, or rage.

There is a great deal of complexity to Yunior, however. His tendency to decenter his own suffering is the symptom of a childhood of terrible pain. His brother is a physically abusive monster who nonetheless occupies almost all of Yunior’s mother’s attention until his death. His father undoes the family with infidelity and coldness (making “Otravida, Otravez,” from the point of view of the mistress, a particularly poignant piece for Yunior to write). In “Miss Lora,” the titular, much-older woman seduces Yunior while he dates a smart, ambitious girl who refuses to put out, and marks the evolution of a complicated string of infidelities and Yunior’s relationship to them.

Both your father and your brother were sucios. Shit, your father used to take you on his pussy runs, leave you in the car while he ran up into cribs to bone his girlfriends. Your brother was no better, boning girls in the bed next to yours. Sucios of the worst kind and now it’s official: you are one, too. You had hopes the gene missed you, skipped a generation, but clearly you were kidding yourself.

The sadness of this moment is that, along what you might call Yunior’s infidelity arc, this act of cheating is the one that is the most tragic, and the least in his control. While Yunior ostensibly enjoys sex with Miss Lora, his increasingly fevered and brutal apocalyptic dreams betray a kind of trauma that he cannot otherwise articulate, and the reader can see it clearly: Miss Lora is a sexual predator, and what is happening is far more complicated than mere unfaithfulness.

But past this point in time, Yunior’s most charming and most despicable characteristics emerge: once he is firmly in control of his own life, very much an adult, he reveals himself to be a terrible narcissist. As we move chronologically through the collection, Yunior cheats on every woman with whom he is in a relationship. As each one falls apart in turn, he reacts in different ways—annoyance, exasperation, denial, declarations of “real love” that feel increasingly cheap. By the time we get to the final story, “A Cheater’s Guide to Love,” Yunior cheats on his fiancé with fifty different women. After he is caught (and it is easy—he has, as with his other transgressions, documented everything very thoroughly), he responds with desperation and wild blame to his heartbroken fiancé.

You try every trick in the book to keep her. You write her letters. You drive her to work. You quote Neruda. You compose a mass e-mail disowning all your sucias. You block their e-mails. You change your phone number. You stop drinking. You stop smoking. You claim you’re a sex addict and start attending meetings. You blame your father. You blame your mother. You blame the patriarchy. You blame Santo Domingo. You find a therapist. You cancel your Facebook. You give her the passwords to all your e-mail accounts. You start taking salsa classes like you always said you would so that the two of you could dance together. You claim that you were sick, you claim that you were weak—It was the book! It was the pressure!—and every hour like clockwork you say that you’re so, so sorry.

There is something deeply pathological about his actions—even with the person that he wants in his hands, he feels the compulsive need to run the relationship off the rails in the most dangerous, cruel way possible, and often to excess. (Fifty women. Fifty.) And at every turn, he is writing—journaling, composing letters and emails, and at the end, the very text of This Is the Way You Lose Her—in a way that verges on ritualistic.

Recently, at a public forum in Iowa, Díaz was asked about how it felt to write a character who exhibited such “borderline-sociopathic disregard” for his many girlfriends and lovers. He balked at the description, insisting that the final act of Yunior writing down all of his crimes—confessing to them, if you will, alongside the other acts of sorrow that have studded his life—demonstrated a kind of empathy for those women. If he cared so little, Diaz said, then “why does he obsessively bear witness to everything that he does wrong in relationships?”

He’s right that Yunior does “obsessively bear witness” throughout. After all, alongside its many other themes—infidelity, the Dominican diaspora, masculinity—we are shown the evolution of a writer, a diary-keeper-turned-novelist. Every act of writing is acknowledging what he’s done. But is it enough to bear witness in the midst of repeated wrongs? Isn’t true atonement half-confession, half-action?

His final act of writing, the construction of the book itself, is clouded with ambiguity regarding his ability, or desire, to change the way that he lives his life.

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.

And so the act of writing for an audience—the most grandiose of confessions, the most public—becomes what Yunior hopes will be grace. That he can be absolved of his reflexive mistreatment of all who have had sex with him by the people who read his words. A reader, I think, would happily settle for This Is How You Lose Her as a portrait of a complicated and ultimately troublesome character—a noir-style antihero who you feel comfortable liking but uncomfortable condoning—but it is a curious thing that the author considers the act of Yunior constructing the book, without plans to change, as inherent redemption, especially when the tone of the final sentence is that these acts of choice are somehow built into his body, and that he will probably only ever have “starts” for the rest of his life. It is with a serial cheater’s signature arrogance that Yunior seems to think that the mere act of being able to articulately and beautifully confess to his crimes constitutes an atonement, and it seems as if Díaz thinks so, too.

What is the point of writing a confessional book? Is it to save others from making your same mistakes, like St. Augustine? Is it to condemn a world gone mad, like Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis? Or is some third, less succinct instinct? A Hail Mary, an act of desperation, a deep-seated belief that you can rise above your own wretchedness not with self-control or goodness or true penitence, but with the sheer force of your own perceived brilliance and an audience to lay it on.

Yunior’s infidelity exists alongside his life’s other tragedies, instead of just being the natural evolution of those tragedies. Because of this, there is no excusing his behavior—again, not a single lapse of judgment, or a one-time human failing, but repeated disrespect—but the reader does see him from every possible angle. The funny thing is, Yunior rises above his faults because we see him from the beginning—his childhood self swimming the soup of tragic circumstance and other’s people’s faults—and so it isn’t the act of writing that redeems Yunior from condemnation for his actions, but rather the generous heart of the reader, willing to grant him pardon. They may even, against their instincts to feel implacable as woman after woman forcibly ejects Yunior from their lives, feel a deep twinge of sorrow, even pity, because his fate seems so sealed, even in the ultimate but comparatively paltry epiphany that marks the book’s final pages.


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Junot Díaz
224 pages. Riverhead. 2012.

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Image: “Zebra Fell Apart” (2009) by Rachelle Agundes

MachadoCarmen Maria Machado  is a fiction writer and essayist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in AGNI, Tin House’s Open Bar, The American Reader, Five Chapters, Best Women's Erotica 2012, The Paris Review Daily, VICE, The Hairpin, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers' Workshop.  When she was fifteen, an English teacher handed her a copy of Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, and nothing was the same after that.
PtakAgnieszka Julia Ptak studied literature at the graduate level at the University of Buenos Aires. She teaches workshops on Argentine and Latin American literature as well as English and Spanish as Second Languages.  From time to time, she publishes and/or translates. Her obsession with reading is longstanding. She always read and still reads (almost) anything that falls into her lap.  Among the places she has visited recently are Uhart, Goytisolo, Nielsen, Piñera, Arlt, Neuman, Casas, Kapuściński, as well as others. Another of her obsessions and passions is new languages. Hence she is now studying her forgotten mother tongue, Polish, as well as beginning her study of the cinematographic idiom.

Published on July 23rd of 2013 in Reviews.

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