In Read This Then That, we pair new books with classics that have similar themes, structures, and stories.
For the narrator of most of the stories in Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, the temptation is great. Yunior is a cad. A cheater. A jerk. That last may be too harsh—he means well, after all. But if he meant well, why won’t he get his act together? In “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” Yunior was dating Magda, but “I cheated on her with this chick who had tons of eighties freestyle hair.” In “Alma,” he’s dating the title character, until Alma finds out about “this beautiful freshman girl named Laxmi.” And in the final story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” it’s even worse.
Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually she’s your fiancée, but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.) She could have caught you with one sucia, she could have caught you with two, but as you’re a totally batshit cuero who didn’t ever empty his e-mail trash can, she caught you with fifty! Sure, over a six-year period, but still.
This is the final story in the book. Most are linked, and lead up to this one: the one where Yunior will clean up his act and stop cheating by writing “The Cheater’s Guide to Love.” If we believe him, at least. Can a leopard change its spots?
Even if he can, in This Is How You Lose Her, Yunior is a con-man when it comes to love. He may truly want to be with his girlfriends, but he doesn’t want to do the honest work involved in keeping them—even though over and over his con blows up in his face. And Chichikov, the antihero of Nikolai Gogol’s masterpiece Dead Souls, is a con-man as well. He truly wants wealth and power, but achieving that above board is far too much work.
Chichikov’s con is more elaborate than cheating on a lover. He’s hit upon an ingenious way of taking advantage of the peonage system in 19th century Russia. The Russian gentry own serfs, the number of which (counted as “souls”) was assessed infrequently, as part of the general census. Landowners still owed taxes on dead serfs until another census rolled around, but Chichikov is here to help: he’ll buy your dead souls. You won’t have to pay taxes on them anymore, and he has a use for them.
But what use can dead souls be? To a man like Chichikov, with no land and little social standing, they are very valuable indeed. Simply having a certain number to his name will lift him in the ranks, and though they don’t exist he can mortgage them for cash. There’s just one little problem: this is clearly cheating, so Chichikov can’t let anyone find out about it.
Just as with Yunior, though, who has his exploits revealed in a letter, in a diary, in his email, Chichikov is betrayed by words—you can’t keep a con secret when it involves other people. He solicits landowners for miles around, buttering them up like Yunior with a trusting ladyfriend, but inevitably gets the side-eye when his con starts to come out. Still, he perseveres and eventually amasses a ghostly fortune. The town is abuzz with his wealth and he’s invited to a ball, where gossip turns against him just as suddenly as Alma, Magda, and the others did to Yunior.
“So, have you bought up a lot of dead ones? You don’t even know, Your Excellency,” [Nozdryov, one of the serf-sellers] went on bawling, addressing the governor, “he deals in dead souls! By God! Listen, Chichikov! you really—I’m telling you out of friendship, all of us here are your friends, yes, and His Excellency here, too—I’d hang you, by God, I’d hang you.”
Chichikov simply did not know where he was.
Nozdryov goes on with his embarrassing revelations, and “the prosecutor, and Chichikov, and the governor himself were so nonplussed that they were utterly at a loss what to reply,” not unlike Yunior when he “was too sick to my stomach even to try” to deny his cheating to Magda.
Fortunately for readers, situations that can be awful and stomach-churning in real life have a lot of comic potential in fiction, and that’s another thing these two books have in common.