There's a guilt that comes with reading the stories in Junot Diaz's new short story collection, "This Is How You Lose Her." Each of the dark, delightful, funny and deeply emotional stories evokes an empathy with the narrator. But the narrator isn't quite the type of person most readers want to like.
For readers familiar with Mr. Diaz's work, the collection will contain all the pleasure of picking up a sequel to a beloved first novel. The narrator of most of the stories has the same voice -- and name, Yunior -- as Mr. Diaz's narrator in his Pulitzer-Prize winning first novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao."
Yunior is a Dominican-American young man who is a self-proclaimed "sucio" (rough translation: a man who is inevitably and unstoppably a jerk to women, even the ones he loves). He recounts many a heartbreak and failed relationship. Most of the failures are his fault. The collection culminates in "The Cheater's Guide to Love," a poignant story that reads like an essay or a slightly polished diary and spans a fascinating space, from Boston to Santo Domingo, from a bad boyfriend to a seemingly unstoppable cycle of lonely young lovers.
Perhaps one of the most impressive feats of the book is its ability to allow for character development without ever writing a true plot. Yunior is collaged together anecdotally so that he is a voice more than a person; Yet he is comprehensible, coherent, a result of the many converging feelings and remembered images splattered through the stories.
A recurring character alongside Yunior is his brother Rafa -- a fitter, more athletic, more popular guy who's an even bigger jerk to women. Rafa, who maintains abusive relationships even through years of cancer, is a specter haunting the Yunior thread of the collection. Without ever making the causality completely clear, Mr. Diaz weaves Yunior and Rafa's characters into a sense of why -- why bad men are as they are, why good women are hurt by them and why the spiral of hurt that begins with a sick, dying brother can shatter every woman Yunior ever tries to love thereafter.
One of the shortest stories, "Flaca," recounts lost memories with a girl named Veronica. Its genuine, final musing could be the line to sum up the emotional uncertainty of the entire collection, as Yunior remembers the relationship. It was held together by some higher force, despite his many human missteps: "I was staring at you and you were staring at me and right then it was sort of like love, wasn't it?"
The story "Miss Lora" tells of one event that helped create the sucio as he is now: a first love with an older woman. "You are scared stupid at what you are doing but it is also exciting and makes you feel less lonely in the world," writes Mr. Diaz, in his characteristic use of the second-person. As in "Oscar Wao," many of the stories in the new collection are written as an internal dialogue between the present Yunior and his past self -- and of course, between the reader, too, making you unwittingly complicit in the love and pain exploding on the pages.
If Mr. Diaz has a limitation, it comes through in his one attempt to embody a female voice in "Otravida, Otravez." The story is one of the few that seems more interested in place than people, and that feels like a misprioritization. Mr. Diaz certainly has the technical skills to write a good version of a familiar story; the piece is about Dominican women, new immigrants, working in American factories. His narrator here contains the same lyricism as his male voice, remembering the passive sense of watching the flickering lights back on the island and comparing it with the passivity of her relationship in the present.
It's a lovely effort by Mr. Diaz to cross the empathy bridge into experience, to prove that his voice can include the women it seems to wrong -- but it somehow isn't quite necessary, and just shows that he shines brighter in the dark, masculine, confessional space of his other stories.
Mr. Diaz doesn't try terribly hard to build a new perspective on the Dominican diaspora or the male psyche. He's using building blocks that he's played with before. But "This is How You Lose Her" is a rare book, and an important reminder that breathing, pulsating characters can make all-too well-traversed territory feel revolutionary.
Sanjena Sathian (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an English major at Yale University and a former intern at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.