News and Online Editor
Upon the encouragement of Life Editor, Sam Tezak, I’m beginning a once a block review of short stories.
The first one appears in Junot Díaz’ most recent (2012) book This Is How You Lose Her, the title of which serves as the conclusion to this week’s story, “Alma.” It’s four pages but it’s made me think about literature in a way like never before.
“Alma” is another installment in the hilarious and poignant sex-scapades of Díaz’ loveable and well-worn sometimes narrator, sometimes protagonist but always villain (usually unto himself), Yunior.
The story follows a familiar arch if you are familiar with Diaz or Yunior: Yunior has landed an outrageously desirable companion, Alma, but before long, he returns to his unfaithful habits, about which he writes in his journal. Alma, one day, decides to pick up the journal and Yunior is left alone again.
Díaz’ prose is fast and fun. It’s replete with the highly-localized and era-specific jargon that probably .01% of Díaz’ readers can relate to but 100% of them have come to expect and love: images of southern New Jersey, memories of a difficult upbringing in the Dominican Republic and loads of cursing, slang, and Spanglish.
Per usual, beneath the hilariously imprudent prose murmurs the sympathy-evoking sorrow and desperation of a man from a cursed country and a broken family who just can’t seem to make anything but self-destructive choices. (For a brilliant exposé of this, read Díaz’ 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning magnum opus, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.)
What makes the story, though, and what is so mind-bendingly brilliant, is the voice Diaz employs. The story is told in the second person, as if Yunior is reading an account of what he did.
Díaz masks a heartbreaking love-story with a tense reserved for parent-hood and self-help books.
Reading the story of one as woebegone as Yunior when “you” are on the receiving end of all his heartbreak is painfully unnerving.
The second person is the tense that tells us to clean our rooms, come home by eight, and to not eat that cookie, mister. Childhood (and school) predisposes us to react unfavorably any time we are addressed as “you” and given orders without any concession of formality like “please.”
The constancy of the story’s voice, remaining in the second-person from beginning to end, adds to the story’s perturbing feel. The story starts out light-hearted and the reader has little trouble adjusting to hearing the protagonist’s course of action as his own. But the tense lingers for the beautiful climax and smile-provoking conclusion, when “you look at her and smile a smile your dissembling face will remember until the day you die,” and shortly thereafter, “you lose her.” As a reader, being placed so intimately such a significant moment feels unsettling.
Díaz’ use of the second-person is self-referential as there are biographical parallels between and Yunior and Díaz. Both are Dominican, both grew up in New Jersey, and both oscillate between full-time writers and professors. Thus, it is safe to assume that many of Díaz’ own experiences provide the fodder for Yunior’s. The second-voice also provides a pedantic way for the speaker, assuming the speaker and the protagonist are one in the same, to think about his past mistakes.
The voice adds to the story’s heartbreak, because the protagonist seems to be playing back a recording of his mistakes that took love away from him, looking at heartbreak straight in the eyes and knowing that there’s nothing to be done.
It’s not that the “you” is convincing. Surely no one picked up This Is How You Lose Her wanting to discover to the (very easy to figure out, actually) secrets to losing a woman. Nevertheless, I’m sure some of the uneasiness I find in reading the second-person in fiction comes from imagining that some of the things that are happening to the protagonist could be happening to me.
Indeed, Alma discovers Yunior’s infidelity by reading his journal and I can only imagine the eruptions that the people in my life would have if they, like Alma, chose to break the unspoken rule and read the words I write for me and me alone.
However, isn’t the true miracle of art that the narrative is often so relatable (as a result of its authenticity, presentation, or execution) that we take it as our own? That’s certainly one of my favorite parts of art: inserting myself into the narrative or looking at my life through its lens.
Often when I’m listening to a song, I imagine myself performing it, and often when I’m immersed in a novel does the novel seep into my life. When I was younger, I got out of the basement as soon as possible because of the death eater that could have been lurking behind the door to the laundry room.
Just recently, I was privy to a conversation between two friends about Asher Roth’s “I Love College.” The conversation centered around how the song, a chronicle of college party life, gave my two friends’, while still in high school, something to look forward to/expect/believe was the norm of college life: “Time isn’t wasted when you’re getting wasted.”
For those familiar with the song, imagine how strange it would be if parts other than a few lines (like the one just mentioned) used the second person instead of the first. Instead of “That party last night was awfully crazy I wish we taped it,” can you imagine singing along to: “That party last night was awfully crazy you wish you taped it”?
Thus, part of art’s draw is taking something that is not ours, or not intended to be ours and adopting it as our own. My friends latched onto and accepted as their collegiate fate what is, presumably, Roth’s own experience with higher-education.
Yet, when the story is given to us directly, without the cloak of the third-person, as it is in “Alma,” the narrative is more difficult to accept as our own.
It won’t take you more than a couple minutes, so give the story a read. Then again, I wouldn’t dare use the second-person to make suggestions.