My Favorite Love Story is Not a Love Story

At least not in the traditional sense. Otravida, Otravez by Junot Diaz is my favorite love story because it’s the story of love when it’s hard, of love when it’s difficult, or when it seems impossible.

The narrator is a woman in love with Ramón, a man with a wife and son he does not speak to.

Our first months Ramón and I were in the park daily. Just to wind down after work, he said, but I painted my fingernails red every time. I remember the day before we first made love, how I already knew it would happen. He had only just told me about his wife and about his son.

The narrator (and in turn, us, the readers) are haunted by the letters sent to Ramón from his wife.

In a box on the top shelf of the closet he has a stack of Virta’s letters, cinched in a fat brown rubber band. Nearly eight years’ worth. Each envelope s worn and frail and I think he’s forgotten they’re here. I found them a month after he stored his things, right at the start of our relationship, couldn’t resist, and afterward I wished I had.

He claims that he stopped writing to her the year before, but that’s not true. Every month I drop by his apartment with his laundry and read the new letters she has sent, the ones he stashes under his bed. I know Virta’s name, her address, I know she works at a chocolate factory; I know that he hasn’t told her about me.

The letters have grown beautiful over the years and now the handwriting has changed as well – each letter loops down, dropping into the next line like a rudder. Please, please mi querido husband, tell me what it is. How long did it take before your wife stopped mattering?

The narrator writes,

Here there are calamities without end—but sometimes I can clearly see us in the future, and it is good.

Her love for this man is something fraught; described to her best friend like this,

Ana Iris once asked me if I loved him and I told her about the lights in my old house in the capital, how they flickered and you never knew if they would go out or not. You put down your things and you waited and couldn’t do anything really until the lights decided. This, I told her, is how I feel.

But still, the love feels real, or at least, the need to stay is.

I am pregnant when the next letter finally arrives. Sent from Ramón’s old place to our new home. I pull it from the stack of mail and stare at it. My heart is beating like it’s lonely, like there’s nothing else inside of me. I want to open it but I call Ana Iris instead; we haven’t spoken in a long time. I stare out of the bird-filled hedges while the phone rings.

I want to go for a walk, I tell her.

The piece ends just as softly as it begins.

She’s writing again, I say, but Ana Iris interrupts me.

I’ve been calling my children, she says. She points out the man across from the courthouse, who sells her stolen calling-card numbers. They’ve gotten so much older, she tells me, that it’s hard for me to recognize their voices.

We sit down after a while so that I can hold her hand and she can cry. I should say something but I don’t know where a person can start.

It gets cold. We go home. We embrace at the door for what feels like an hour.

That night I give Ramón the letter and I try to smile while he reads it.

Why Fates and Furies Was the Best Book of 2015 (and What I’m Excited For in 2016)

True statement: the longer the title, the better the post.

But really, I’m excited to have this space to discuss what was in my view the best book of 2015, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. Even in the year of Purity, this one shines above for its gorgeous writing and fascinating characters. (And Lauren Groff is super nice, too!)

If you told me that my favorite book of the year would involve one character named Lancelot (Lotto) who is, for better or worse, a white, attractive, privileged male who becomes hugely successful as a playwright, and a tall, model-like pixie wife named imgresMathilde, I would have told you, simply, no. But somehow Lotto as a character becomes interesting and enlivened on the page not in spite of his predispositions, but because of them, and Mathilde is full of secrets and thoughts and personal revelations that endear me to her. I tore through this nearly 400-page book in a week and a half, and it will now become one of those books I read again and again (joining the likes of Zadie Smith’s NW, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Freedom, Michael Ondaatje’s Coming through Slaughter, and Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her).

The story is split into two books, one told from the point of view of Lotto (“Fates”), the latter of Mathilde (“Furies”). Groff admitted that over the course of five years while writing the book, her original intent was to publish two books, one to come out FullSizeRender-2six months after the other. She always saw them as two separate stories. Her publisher nixed the idea (given the state of book publishing, one can understand why), and instead, Groff went back to the stories and wove them together, finding the moments of interconnectedness that would create the story we now read. This, thankfully, does not feel forced. Instead, Groff is able to create an elegant portrait of two married individuals who love and care for one another, but never quite know everything about each other. It breaks down the many nuances of a relationship to this one central idea: we are still separate individuals, with separate thoughts, ideas, and experiences. No matter how much we love our partners, this will always be true. The novel then moves along with this idea, treats it like a given, to create a story that explores the nature of living, the multitude of highs and lows one culminates in a lifetime.

One review from New York Times stood out to me as a particularly important read of this book, “The deepest satisfaction gained by reading ‘Furies’ after ‘Fates’ lies less in admiring how tidily the puzzle pieces snap together – though they do – than in experiencing one’s own kaleidoscope shift of emotions and concerns.” I found the strength of the story came not from the many reveals that gave us a deeper understanding of the characters’ relationship, but the many untidy, sometimes out-of-character story lines that created a sense of chaos, an assurance that life is not ever neat, that we as sentient, complicated beings still do things that don’t always make sense.

Never did this feel more apparent than when spending a long time in a pseudo-depressive state with Lotto while he tries to write an opera at an artist’s residency. There are plot points in this particular section that support other things in the story, IMG_2765but not everything in this section leads to something else. While in that space of the book, I wanted to be out of it. It was miserable, dark, uncomfortable. (It felt similar to the artist residency present in Ben Lerner’s 10:04 – the confusing space of creativity and loneliness that comes from being alone with only your work.) Personally, the payoff doesn’t totally make sense or feel necessary for the events that happen in the rest of the book. And still, it turned out to be one of the scenes that stuck with me the most, for its sloppiness (not on behalf of Groff’s writing, but of human life), its tendency toward self-pity, its accurate representation of the frustration of the human species: we can be perfectly successful in so many areas of our lives, and still constantly fighting the feeling that we’re sinking quickly into a black hole.

A note on the writing: Groff began her writing career intent on being a poet. This comes through in the language, which (especially in “Fates”) is something that a reader needs to work through. It begins with sets of descriptive fragments: A thick drizzle from the sky, like a curtain’s sudden sweeping. The seabirds stopped their turning, the ocean went mute. Houselights over the water dimmed to gray. For those who had difficulty getting into the rhythm (I had members of my book club express that the style of writing prevented them from engaging with the character, which is a shame), the second half, “Furies,” thankfully adjusts and helps fill in any gaps that we missed in the first half. This was a deliberate shift in tone to match the voices of each character: Lotto, choppy and quick-paced, Mathilde, longer sentences, deliberate language. 

There are also odd things: occasional point-of-view shifts and narrative insertions that some may find difficult – for a moment we see things from the angle of a gray cat, once from a stranger walking on the street, and the insertions never reveal anyone’s but the author’s thoughts. But I won’t fault Groff for either of them. For me they made the story strange, interesting, and beautiful.

I won’t say anymore because there are too many things that can be revealed, but just know that if you pick up this book, expect to be taken through an emotionally-charged journey of marriage, loneliness, expectations, and ultimately how all of these things are just fragments of so many events and emotions that make up a lifetime. It’s not an easy, tidy plot, and that’s okay, because neither are we.

Read it. Read it again. Wait for the last lines to tear your heart out. Breathe through it.

Favorite lines:

For a long time, she held him. She felt the heat of him leave. She stood only when she could no longer recognize his body, like a word repeated until it has lost all meaning.

[Mathilde’s prayer: Let me be the wave. And if I cannot be the wave, let me be the rupture at the bottom. Let me be that terrible first rift in the dark.]

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Finally, as the title of this post promised, there are a few books I’m really looking forward to diving into in 2016. First, Marlon James – A Brief History of Seven Killings, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist and won the Man Booker Prize, is a sprawling story that begins with an assassination attempt of Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976, follows to New York City in 1980s, and back to the changed Jamaica of the 1990s.

Next, Clare Vaye Watkins’ debut Gold Fame Citrus, which begins in a California desiccated by climate change and follows the relationship of Ray and Luz, two twenty-somethings holding out in this barren wasteland.

For poetry, I can’t wait to finally sit down with Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric. Rankine won the National Book Award for this one, which comes ten years after the amazing Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. In 150 gorgeous pages, Rankine infuses poetry with prose and visual art to explore how racism pervades American daily life.

I also can’t wait for Patti Smith’s M Train, a meditation that infuses culture and art, a book that is sure to be a beautiful follow-up to 2010’s Just Kids.

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I have so many other books I meant to get to this year and haven’t, and many old books I still want to read, including the short story collections Drown­ by Junot Diaz and Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, and the novels Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Coehen, and A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore. Let the new year of reading [and writing] begin!

Naming Your Narrative Voice

imgres-2I’ve loved Junot Diaz since a friend recommended This is How You Lose Her a few years ago. Given how much I enjoyed the book, with its multiple narrators and distinct voices, I was long overdue to read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I finally read and finished it last month. The differences in the novels are obvious, as are the similarities. If we were to compare one to the other, the things I love in Lose Her (interconnected short story structure, each section told from various distinct points of view) are the same things I didn’t love in Oscar Wao. Whereas Lose Her‘s stories all derived from a central theme but were not necessarily meant to be connected in the sense of one overarching narrative plot, Oscar Wao‘s weight comes from side tangents on the lives and history of every character in the book. (Side note, I don’t love Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex for similar reasons, though I’d say Diaz pulls this off better than Eugenides.)

But this isn’t a post about Diaz’s choice in story structure and my personal tastes. This is about Diaz’s narrative voice, the one thing tying both Lose Her and Oscar Wao together. I’m talking about Yunior.

Yunior appears a few times during Lose Her, most predominantly as a young boy whoseimgres-1 brother passes from cancer, and again as an adult whose tragedies and triumphs are told through the second person toward the end of the book. I had heard that this character appears in Wao prior to reading the book, and, generally wary of recurring characters, I was hesitant about this, knowing how I enjoyed Yunior so much in Lose Her. And knowing that I’d already lived his life with him, had already understood his relationships and family and personal identity. As I learned from reading Oscar Wao, I wasn’t wrong for being wary.

Yunior appears in Oscar Wao as a character voice, and doesn’t become a full-fledged character that we can grab ahold of until at least a third of the way into the book. It took me a while to even know that the voice Diaz was using (a familiar voice if you’ve read any of his other work, surely) was Yunior. The problem is, while there is a clear space for Yunior’s character in Lose Her, with all other characters stemming outward from his family and relationships, there seems little place for him in Oscar Wao. In fact, even by the end of the novel I was left wondering why Yunior was the one to tell me the entire story, and how on earth he would have been the one to be privileged to such intimate details and backstory of the central characters’ histories when he himself was so very far removed from even the two characters with whom he did had relationships (Oscar and his older sister Lola, who he dates on and off in a fraught relationship that goes nowhere). Then I realized: Yunior isn’t a character. Yunior is Diaz’s narrative voice.

photo 1The realization wasn’t much of a realization when you read any of Diaz’s other works (it becomes pretty apparent that he’s most comfortable in Yunior’s voice), but as a writer, I question this tactic. For one, Diaz quickly becomes typecast using Yunior’s voice. As a reader, I know exactly what Yunior’s voice sounds like, I understand the rhythm of his cadence, I know there will be a lot of Spanish and a lot of cursing punctuating his sentences, which creates a type of predictability about the work; two, as a reader who’s read more than one of his books, I try to connect the stories told to complete my understanding of Yunior’s fictional life (a slippery slope for both reader and writer because timelines and character plots never add up); and finally, perhaps most importantly, there seems no need for it. Diaz does a brilliant job writing as a Dominican woman in love with a married man, for example, in Lose Her. I haven’t yet read Drown, and it’s true Yunior is a central character here as well, but with ten stories told in the collection, one imagines there are plenty other voices that Diaz pulls off with ease. He could have easily (and perhaps more enjoyably) written from the POV of each of the characters, instead of forcing us to accept the implausibility of Yunior’s knowledge from his limited connections to the family.

So what is the draw? Perhaps it’s that writing in that space where we as writers feel most comfortable help us to write. I know I feel this way as well. It’s much easier for me to embody aimgres girl who isn’t exactly me, but a type of me that I can easily recognize and write from. It’s a voice I lean towards in much of my fiction because it feels most comfortable. But when I move into the heads of other characters (for example, in a recent short story I wrote in the voice of a young, gay man) it is exciting, new, but challenging. As it should be. Not to say Diaz is lazy (I think he’s brilliant) but he’s obviously comfortable with the voice he’s chosen. Whether or not this is a good thing is perhaps up to the reader to decide. Diaz is clearly comfortable enough as a writer to get away with it. But, I for one look forward to more diverse character voices from Diaz, because we all know he can do it.

Notable lines (from This is How You Lose Her, in the voice of a woman in the section Otravida, Otravez):

Here there are calamities without end — but sometimes I can clearly see us in the future, and it is good. We will live in his house and I will cook for him and when he leaves food out on the counter I will call him a zangano. I can see myself watching him shave every morning. And at other times I see us in that house and see how one bright day (or a day like this, so cold your mind shifts every time the wind does) he will wake up and decide it’s all wrong. He will wash his face and then turn to me. I’m sorry, he’ll say. I have to leave now.