Yesterday, I read a story by Junot Diaz in the New Yorker – the line: “The half-life of love is forever” caught me.
Beautiful, right? It made me think about how grief lingers, what it’s like to lose your lover, or someone else. How years later, it’s still with you. The story was also published in his collection This is How You Lose Her, which I then read. (I’m a little late to the game on this one – it was published in 2012).
When Z asked what I was reading, I mentioned the story and the line. Ever the scientist, he said: “well, that just means that love is stable”, and chuckled, then started riffing physics jokes.
I was like: “Your love better be stable, wise guy.” Joking, but not.
The book is, after all, a collection of stories about infidelity and love. In an interview in the Atlantic, Diaz explained why he finds cheating such a compelling subject:
People are always fascinated by infidelity because, in the end—whether we’ve had direct experience or not—there’s part of you that knows there’s absolutely no more piercing betrayal. People are undone by it. Love is understood, in a historical way, as one of the great human vocations—but its counterspell has always been infidelity. This terrible, terrible betrayal that can tear apart not only another person, not only oneself, but whole families.
In the archaic record, this idea of infidelity is elevated to a national level: In The Iliad, we see this kind of treachery tear apart nations. And I think anyone who’s ever been betrayed like that certainly feels a little bit of the Troy in them. When your heart gets torn to bits, it feels like a nation being torn to bits.
So there’s the epic scale, but then it’s so extraordinarily intimate. I think that the combination is really a brilliant one-two punch.
A knock-out of an answer.
The stories follow Yunior from childhood, and the people around him, as they grapple with their relationships. I’ve not read The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but the Yunior character appears there too, and both are written in Diaz’s distinctive style. From The Cheater’s Guide to Love (a story in the collection):
You clean up your act. You cut it out with all the old sucias, even the Iranian girl you’d boned the entire time you were with the fiancée. You want to turn over a new leaf. Takes you a bit, but you finally break clear, and when you do you feel lighter. I should have done this years ago, you declare, and your friend Arlenny, who never, ever messed with you (Thank God, she mutters), rolls her eyes.
You wait, what, a week for the bad energy to dissipate and then you start dating. Like a normal person, you tell Elvis. Without any lies. Elvis says nothing, only smiles.
At first it’s O.K.: you get numbers, though nothing you would take home to the fam. Then, after the early rush, it all dries up. It ain’t just a dry spell; it’s fucking Arrakeen. You’re out all the time, but no one seems to be biting. Not even the chicks who swear they love Latin guys. One girl, when you tell her you’re Dominican, actually says, Hell no, and runs full tilt toward the door. Seriously? you say. You begin to wonder if there’s some secret mark on your forehead.
A “sucia”, I learned, is a Spanish slang term translating roughly to “female slut”. “Sucio” is the male form. “Arrakeen” is a reference to a science fiction novel. Every passage in the book is like this – mixing references, English and Spanish, and cadences.
Not every story is told by Yunior: one of the more heartbreaking ones, Otravida, Otravez, is from the perspective of the woman we assume is Yunior’s father’s mistress, Yasmin. The harsh treatment she receives in her relationship (“You are not a clever woman” he tells her), seems brutal as she endures her “donkey job”, racism, the Boston winter cold and learning to speak English. When she first arrived, she “was so alone that every day was like eating my own heart”.
Yunior himself is the architect of his own heartbreak: a serial cheater, he seems to want the love that comes from a relationship, but is unable to consider the characters of the women he’s with.
The collection is, in a sense, a feminist work. While Yunior is sexist as they come (he describes a girl: “She was Dominican, from here, and had super-long hair, like those Pentecostal girls, and a chest you wouldn’t believe – I’m talking world-class.” – the book is peppered with descriptions like these), we see the pain that sexism causes him.
He is sad, unable to experience empathy for the women he wants (in contrast to the softer Yasmin). As Diaz told The Atlantic: “All of Yunior’s fucked-up visions of women never get him anything… They end up with him more alone, more frustrated, more aware of his dehumanization and farther away from the thing that he deeply longs for—a human connection.”
Basically: the objectification of women leads to lonelier lives. The objectifying Yunior does is common, recognizable – the voice Diaz uses is familiar – and his resulting unhappiness is clear.