The Short Version: A series of stories about failed relationships, all somehow involving the irrepressible Yunior.
The Review: The summary – any summary – makes this book feel like far less than it actually is. It’s a slim collection and one with the weight of the world riding on it: Diaz, after all, won the Pulitzer Prize with his last work (a novel of some repute…) and his first short story collection was pretty well received too. And while we know he’s working on something big for his next novel, it was unclear what these stories would be. Would they have the sci-fi bent of Oscar Wao and the forthcoming work? Would they be romances? Would they be something else entirely?
Romances is the answer. I read the ‘centerpiece’ story (“The Cheater’s Guide to Love”) in The New Yorker a few months ago and, coupled with the title, I realized that this was going to be the best breakup book I’d ever read.
Look, we all go through bad breakups. And anyone with an artistic bone in their body usually wants to channel them into… something. Songs, poems, stories, movies, etc. But how often does that sadness actually have any impact whatsoever when you put it into those forms? It’s pretty rare, am I right? Usually it’s catharsis for you and that’s great but that doesn’t make it good art. And I say this being so guilty of writing breakup songs and stories that I just to pass on to people. So it makes me jealous, actually, that (having not gone through a breakup in quite a while – a year, in fact) Diaz is so successful with this collection.
I’m not sure if he’s writing out of a place of emotion or just because he’s damn good at this kind of story. I don’t really care either way, to be honest: they’re just really good stories. Each and every one of them is heartbreaking in one way or another – whether it’s just the simple heartbreak of a romance that dies out because you’re young lovers or the way-too-complex-to-comprehend heartbreak we see our elders experiences or the “you were an idiot” cheating that most of us encounter in one way or another at some point. It’s all so freaking beautiful, though.
The stories are loosely connected in that Yunior – yep – is involved in all of them. It’s unclear at first if they’re all tales of his own romantic failings or if Yunior is just sort of Diaz’s catch-all narrator voice. Towards the end of the book, I began to think it was the former even though I’d started thinking the opposite. I guess it was just because I don’t know anyone who’s been through that many fucked up relationship failures – and because I didn’t want to immediately think “oh, hey, it’s Yunior!” because he narrated Oscar Wao. But it doesn’t matter. I sort of like the interconnectivity of the stories, so I’m in that “all the same” camp now. To hear a reference in the second to last story about the brother who’d died of cancer, who was alive and just suffering from it several stories earlier, was a neat little play with the timeline.
The stories are still funny and written in that immediately noticeable voice of Diaz’s. There’s Spanish mixed in, but not much. It’s mostly just that streetwise smart-aleck tone, the no-bullshit narration, the simultaneously seductive and trashy descriptions – it’s all there, what Diaz used to such excellent ends previously. Only this time, it’s all about the ends of things. The way we fall apart. How you lose her. The horrible things we say and do to people we think we love. And there’s no blame. Sure, most of the time it seems like it’s Yunior’s fault but at the same time, I don’t think we’re ever meant to see it as such. He’s just a human being, man.
The most impressive thing about the collection – and this is always what truly gets me about the greatest short story writers – is that each of them is so perfectly self-contained that you get the whole experience that comes from reading a novel in the condensed span of a short story. God, the story that has the title quote in it at the end? Or the end of “Cheater’s Guide”? Absolutely kills me, man. So beautifully and perfectly written to evoke exactly what it feels like at the end of a relationship. “The half life of love is forever,” writes Yunior/Diaz (it’s unclear, especially in that last story, how autobiographical Yunior might be). What a quote.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. I’ll come back to this series of stories when I next have a breakup or some kind of real heartbreak. Or when I want to show someone something beautiful. This is the sort of book that makes you remember it’s going to be okay – and that there’s beauty in the bruises and scars and tears. Having heartbreak in the world is a fair trade if this sort of thing is what we get in return.