I ended up reading Junot Díaz’ book This Is How You Lose Her because I heard about Díaz twice in the same day. First I heard his interview on Morning Edition on NPR. Díaz’ conversation with Steve Inskeep caught my attention. Díaz says that he was never encouraged as a young boy by the culture around him to see women as fully human. At one point he asks Inskeep, “But look — bro, are you telling me that if I get all the women of the United States and gather them all together and say do you highly recommend American men, that you’re going to get like a sterling recommendation? That these women are going to be like, ‘Oh yes! American men are fantastic. These dudes have done so well by us’?”
That piqued my interest, because part of the push for writing the science fiction novel I just published was very similar to Díaz’ motivation for writing This Is How You Lose Her. My book, Aetna Rising, comes out of the frustration that I have felt with the cultural thinking about guys in our society. It seems to be assumed that all guys value sexuality over relationship and commitment. As a Dad who highly values his marriage and children, I am tired of this point of view, but I know that there are guys out there who think this way. I also know that whatever I may value, biology has a say in attraction and that can lead guys to treat women poorly. I wanted to write a story about a guy figuring it out. I wanted a story which supported the choices for fidelity and commitment that most of the men who read this blog have made and continue to make.
The kicker was seeing on our sister blog Underwire that Díaz is working on a science fiction novel. It was at that point when I decided that I needed to read that book. I can’t say it was an easy read but that is the case with most honest books. I can say it was totally worth it and made me think.
Addicts are always looking for the answer. It is the sacred quest to avoid pain which first leads an addict to their drug of choice. Addiction is the persistent delusion, despite growing evidence to the contrary, that the addict has found a sacred totem which allows them to transcend pain. Addicts are dreamers who will give everything, even their own lives, in pursuit of this Holy Grail.
What is more fascinating is that almost no addict questions the quest to outrun pain when they first enter recovery. Almost all addicts enter recovery because the veil of sacred awe surrounding their totem has been pierced and in a momentary glimpse of sanity they connect their current pain with their ongoing worship of their totem. For the sex addict, this revelation may come in the form of being caught cheating. For the drunk, it may be the DUI. In both cases outside forces break down the addict’s defenses and cause them to connect the pain to the object of their addiction. Now the addict blames the object. In the early stages of recovery, addicts almost always attempt to shift their affections to a totem with less damaging side affects, perhaps recovery meetings themselves or a heroic therapist who seems to have the answers or possibly work or even exercise. They almost never question the quest for a pain-free life itself.
A highly significant moment of transition takes place in the addict’s world when they come to see that their Manichean desire for a life of pure bliss may itself be the problem. All people must carry with them the scars and pains caused by their imperfections. For the addict this truth carries with it the shock of revelation.
I was reminded of these realities as I closed the back cover of Junot Díaz’ This is How You Lose Her. Díaz’ book loosely follows the journey of Yunior, a Dominican immigrant who comes to America as a boy. The book begins with Yunior cheating on a girl he cares for and getting caught. Yunior tries everything to keep her. Except for a small but intensely significant coda, the end of the book comes full circle, with Yunior repeating the cycle of destructive behavior. This time he gets caught cheating on his fiancée, the love of his life, with fifty women over a six year span.
Anyone familiar with addiction will see the madness in the repetition of Yunior. Addicts are so convinced that their totem is the answer for all their pain that they repeatedly fall into the same destructive behaviors, hurting themselves over and over in a cyclical pattern. What fills the pages in between these two episodes of acting out are a series of vignettes told mostly from Yunior’s point of view. These vignettes both reveal the cyclical train wrecks of Yunior’s choices and illustrate the influences which shaped him.
There are the usual suspects: a caustic father who is largely absent and tremendously destructive when present; the older teacher who offers sex to the teenage Yunior, stunting his emotional growth, while at the same time encouraging him to go to college; an older brother, a mother, and various flings and girlfriends have roles to play as well. Díaz doesn’t forget the larger context either. As an American of Dominican decent himself, Díaz holds up Dominican male culture for scorn. But for this blanquito, there didn’t seem to be all that much difference between Dominican male views of women and sexuality and the prevailing views of huge portions of mainstream American male culture. In my darkest moments I can relate all too well to Yunior’s thinking.
In a culture in which pornography substitutes for relationship, and in which the hookup and shame-free casual sex are held up as ubiquitous male ideals, Díaz’ book comes as a courageous breath of fresh air. For many men capable of honesty, the book will not be an easy read. It will be too personal, too familiar. The challenge for men laid out by Díaz is to take an unflinching look at the ways in which we see women, in particular sex with women, as a means by which we can escape pain. Are we on the quest for the grail or do we as men see pain, regrets, and suffering as an integrated part of human existence?
Without the short coda at the end of the book, Díaz’ work would be merely the catalogue of an addict traveling from train wreck to train wreck, perhaps useful as a confessional but not instructive or helpful. It isn’t until the very last paragraphs of the book that Yunior grapples with the necessary and vital turn in his thinking about women. It is only a few words before the close that Yunior, grappling with his loss writes on paper, The half-life of love is forever. And with those words Yunior rounds an important corner in his recovery, accepting pain and regret as part of his existence. In this way it is only at the end of This Is How You Lose Her that Yunior is ready to begin.
This Is How You Lose Her is published by Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Group USA.