Junot Diaz: “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” from The New Yorker, 7/23/12

New Yorker art by Jeffrey Decoster

New Yorker art by Jeffrey Decoster

Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually she’s your fiancée, but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.) … She’ll stick around for a few months because you been together a long, long time. Because you’ve gone through so much together — her father’s death, your tenure madness, her bar exam (passed on the third attempt). And because love, real love, is not so easily shed.

Yes, it’s the third Diaz story TNY has published since April. Yes, it’s the same character, Yunior. Yes, it’s the same style. Yes, it’s second person (which is fine with me, but I know a lot of people have a problem with it).

And yet, while I went into it with the reluctance of another dental cleaning, by the end of the story I was moved.

It’s the tale of a man slowly coming to terms with himself, with his own behavior, and the consequences he and others have suffered as a result of it. He’s helped along the way by seeing how similar behavior on the part of his best bud Elvis affects others. Funny how that works; it’s always so easy to see failures in others, while our own remain mysteriously obscure to us.

It’s structured by years. Year 0 is the breakup with his fiancée, who remains unnamed, and proceeds in similarly-titled chapters until Year 5 when… the story gets written. Yes, another one like that. Maybe this is the Year of the Feedback Loop. I’m not saying it doesn’t work. I’m just saying I’m seeing it all over the place now. Was it there before, and I wasn’t paying attention?

I like the chapter titles, which give it a scientific cast, like an anthropologist tracing the development of civilization from Year 0. Or maybe Ground Zero. The chapters also provide a structure I appreciated, since it’s a cycle of Yunior falling apart, professionally, personally, physically, and pulling it together. It starts to feel very “I’ve been here before”. The chapters assured me that yes, I had, because he had been here before. I have to admit, I was getting a little peeved.

Year 4 includes a trip to the Dominican Republic with buddy Elvis, to visit the secret, second family, son and baby mama, Elvis has stashed there in the squalor of the Nadalands. That appears to be an invented term, but you get the idea, it’s a mud flat “falling off the rim of civilization.” Elvis has plans to move them out. He picks Elvis up for the drive to the airport:

He has three suitcases of swag for the boy, including his first glove, his first ball, his first Bosox jersey. About eighty kilos of clothes and shit for the baby mama. Hid them all in your apartment, too. You are at his house when he bids his wife and mother-in-law and daughter goodbye. His daughter doesn’t seem to understand what’s happening, but when the door shuts she lets out a wail that coils about you like a constantine wire. Elvis stays cool as fuck. This used to be me, you’re thinking.

To me, it felt like this is where the story starts, but actually it’s almost over. Without the previous material, nothing here would have much meaning, so I can understand the importance of developing enough of a rapport with the adult Yunior (I never read the original collection introducing us to him as an adolescent) and how he’s mishandling his life. Over the past five years, the tables have turned a little: he’s the one who’s been crapped on. One girlfriend wouldn’t sleep with him; or more accurately, she’d chastely sleep over on Sunday night, bringing her own pillow. It says something about Yunior that she could get away with that. She walks out when he complains.

Another, a law student, breaks up with him for another guy, then comes back and tells him she’s pregnant with his child, only to recant in the delivery room under the stresses of labor: “I don’t want him in here. He’s not the father.”

In Year 5, he gets a photo and an invitation to her wedding to the other guy. Elvis rips it up. “You manage to save a tiny piece of the photo. It’s of her hand.” This, too, says something about Yunior. Unfortunately, these things were easy to miss on first read, with the parade of depressions and recoveries and girlfriends coming and going.

Yet through the whole story, in every year, the fiancée is present. In his TNY interview, he says it’s about a central absence, like most of his stories; but to me, the fiancée is there all along. It’s a very powerful element, how she sticks with this guy who doesn’t seem to care about much.

I was very lucky to enjoy a brief visit from my former Zoetrope friend Melissa (she’s still a friend, we just aren’t very active on Zoetrope Virtual Studios – hi, Melissa) over the weekend, and when the conversation inevitably turned to what we’d been reading, she told me of her experience with Diaz’s Oscar Wu novel: that for all the misogyny and misbehavior, there’s a tenderness to his work. I agree. Yunior cheated on his fiancée with fifty women over the course of their six-year relationship (hence the six-year span of the story; it’s a mirror image, the relationship after she leaves). He’s a dog. But then there’s that photo of her hand… Change is always possible.

Finally, when you feel like you can do so without exploding into burning atoms, you open a folder that you’ve kept hidden under your bed. The Doomsday Book. Copies of all the e-mails and photos from the cheating days, the ones the ex found and compiled and mailed to you a month after she ended it. Dear Yunior, for your next book. Probably the last time she wrote your name.
You read the whole thing cover to cover (yes, she put covers on it). You are surprised at what a fucking chickenshit coward you are. It kills you to admit it, but it’s true. You are astounded by the depths of your mendacity. When you finish the book a second time, you say the truth: You did the right thing, negra. You did the right thing.

Elvis looks at the book. “You really should write the cheater’s guide to love.” Yunior hasn’t written anything in the six years since the breakup.

The ending is predictable, sentimental, and perfect.

It takes a while… And then, one June night, you scribble the ex’s name and: The half-life of love is forever.
You bust out a couple more things. Then you put hour head down.
The next day, you look at the new pages. For once, you don’t want to burn them or give up writing forever.
It’s a start, you say to the room.
That’s about it. In the months that follow, you bend to the work, because it feels like hope, like grace – and because you know in your lying cheater’s heart that sometimes a start is all we ever get.

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9 responses to “Junot Diaz: “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” from The New Yorker, 7/23/12

    • Hi Rex – thanks for the link. I enjoyed the Edwards story, especially how the armoire becomes a symbol for the ended relationship he can’t cut out of his heart. Nice. And the empty relationship with Heather-Kelly (that’s so great, either-or, who knows what her cute little name is) is much like Yunior’s with the successors to his fiancee. And the male buddy and confidant (I love Nuther Beer too, somebody should do that for real). And of course the second person pov.

      But I don’t think Diaz just added “Spanglish” in, his Yunior is a Dominican character, with the culturally learned behavior that creates the crisis with the fiancee. It’s also clear it’s his behavior that’s caused the breakup, whereas in Edwards, as I read it, we don’t really know what happened (he act like a jerk with Heather-Kelly, but we’re never told how he was with the original woman. So it’s not a matter of living with the consequences of his behavior, and finally coming to terms with it, it’s more about the effects of the breakup and how it sabotages his future relationship, possibly relationships.

      And I think there’s no “point of change” in the Edwards, for the protagonist anyway; maybe H-K is getting tired of putting up with him, hence asking at the end to move the armoire, but does he move it? Or is it still there, still a monument to his lost love? We don’t know, but it seems he’s the same character he was at the start, at least as I read it.

      An interesting pair of stories to compare, thanks for providing me the opportunity!

      • Thanks for the response and the adept comparison! I admit I was reductive in saying Diaz simply tossed in some “Spanglish,” but while “Yunior” does have Dominican roots, he is unmistakably (if uncomfortably) American, which is presented as an identity issue but not necessarily the reason that a 40-something college professor should violate his relationship with, um, 50 or so partners?

        I see Edwards’ Heather-Kelly as a romantic placeholder — his partner’s name may change but the narrator, regardless of potential moments for inspiration, will remain the same, at least for the time being. The Yunior character, likewise, may observe potential for change, but only superficially and self-servingly — to end with the idea of writing a book about the very story we’ve just read seems to me like the lamest of cop-outs. I’m not so sure he’s come to terms with anything of significance, or that he ever will. Diaz has drawn him this way in far too many pieces and seems quite proud of emphasizing his “bro-ness.” (Resisting a psych analysis of the author here)

        Overall, though, the odds seem slim to me that Diaz just happened to replicate so many elements of the Edwards story two years later. It’s not a plagiarism, of course, but the similarities in rhythm, form and character offer the same kind of circular narrative propulsion.
        I get the feeling that Diaz is singing his own words over someone else’s song, and the inevitable outcome is an absence of depth and a feeling that the story is disingenuous and incomplete.

        Thanks for letting me express some thoughts! Great job with the blog! I’ll be sure to keep reading and commenting…

      • Hah, you got me – I was thinking of Miss Lora with the whole cheating-as-learned-behavior thing. Same character, but it wasn’t repeated in this story. But still, there’s the whole Boston riff, the racism which seems to get worse each time he gets more depressed (interesting, does he notice it more, or does his behavior and affect invite more scrutiny?) – I didn’t mention it in my notes, but I found that really interesting, since I lived in Boston for 20 years back in the 70s and 80s, and it seems things haven’t changed much in that regard.

        I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one – we both see similarities and differences; I think the differences are more important, while you see the similarities as being stronger than the differences. I’ll admit, I’m a little affected by the intimidation factor, too. Until this year, when TNY ran these three stories within a four month period (a really silly thing to do, IMHO), I’d never read Diaz because he scared me. 😉 By the way, the timeline isn’t necessarily so clear; the collection containing these stories is due for release this year, so it’s been in the pipeline for some time. Though it’s still possible, timewise, for some overlap.

        But what I really enjoy about these discussions is not coming to a resolution, but finding myself in a position to examine my opinions and assumptions, and justify them with the text. It’s why I started blogging in the first place – to move beyond “Wow, I liked/hated this story” into something a little more quantitative. So thanks for participating – and I hope we get to do this with additional stories in the future.

  1. Hey, Rex,

    From one ex-Zoetroper to another, nice review!

    By the way, there’s some authentic Spanish (Castellano) here. I can’t speak for the D. R. variation on some of the slang, but where Diaz writes in Spanish, it’s authentic.

    Russell

    • Hi Russell, welcome to the party. You’re both former Zoetropers? Cool! I was there about, um, three to five years ago, I think, mostly in the Flash Factory. Great place. Zin still visits so we keep abreast of some current events. 😉

  2. Reblogged this on Foil & Ribbon and commented:
    I read this article at my friend’s house in Brighton yesterday. It was fantastic, and this blog post is the perfect companion to it – I wanted to post a link to the story but you have to subscribe to the New Yorker, which I will do as soon as I have like £100 to my name!

    • Hi FoilAndRibbon, glad you liked the story and the post. I don’t subscribe to TNY either, I use the library copy. Sometimes they do bring stories out from behind the paywall, which I appreciate.

  3. Pingback: BASS 2013: Closing the Cover | A Just Recompense

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