Cristina Henriquez Reaches for “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars”

Cristina Henriquez is the author of Come Together, Fall Apart, a collection of eight short stories and an eponymous novella. West Coast readers will get a chance to see her in Seattle tonight (at Elliott Bay) and Los Angeles tomorrow (at Dutton’s), and in a joint appearance with Daniel Alarcon at Corte Madera’s Book Passage later this week.

henriquez.jpgIf the task of choosing my favorite short story were akin to choosing some sort of international literary prize, my shortlist would look something like this: “The School” by Donald Barthelme, “Pastoralia” by George Saunders, “Marie” by Edward P. Jones, “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor, “Goodbye, My Brother” by John Cheever, and “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” by Junot Diaz. Then again, if I were on the panel for a prize whose shortlist looked like this, there would probably be murmurs among the other jurors suggesting that I be disqualified as a judge, my bias obvious.

I would try to convince them that I really did love all these stories equally, that they had each influenced me or knocked my socks off at some time. But, like a parent who claims to love all his children the same but whose adoration for one is plain, there’s no denying it: Junot Diaz’ “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” is my favorite short story. To read my writing, it’s not a surprising choice. Which is why I was loath to pick it when I first started writing this. I wanted to be less predictable. But oh, admit it, I finally thought, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” is The One for me.

The story starts with these lines: “I’m not a bad guy. I know how that sounds—defensive, unscrupulous—but it’s true.” I can never quite tell whether this means the narrator is actually going to turn out to be a bad guy, or whether to believe him when he says he’s not. In the first line, he’s the classic unreliable narrator. In the second, he counteracts his own unreliability with his self-awareness. It’s indicative of the complexity of the whole story.

The narrator, Yunior, takes his girlfriend, Magda, on a trip to Santo Domingo. Madga has recently learned that Yunior cheated on her, but they had planned this trip a while ago, so decide to take it anyway. But that’s just the plot. For me, the story is about the voice. A voice like a boa constrictor, it wraps around me and keeps me emphatically in the grip of the story. A voice that can get away with lines like, “Our relationship wasn’t the sun, the moon, and the stars, but it wasn’t bullshit, either.” Such beauty bumping up against such rawness. The poetry and the punch. And one of my favorite images in recent literary history, after the tension between the couple is obvious and Yunior can’t tell Magda that he loves her, much less that he likes her a lot, even after she pleads with him to say it. “Magda gets to her feet and walks stiff-legged toward the water. She’s got a half-moon of sand stuck to her butt. A total fucking heartbreak.” It makes me want to squeeze the page until the words dissolve and sink into my skin. It makes me warm in the belly. It makes me stop blinking for a minute and pause, every time I get to it. It makes me think: This is all I want to read for the rest of my life. I can’t explain it better than that. It’s love.

There’s more to the story than heart-stopping lines, of course. Its effortless deployment of technique is also crucial to its power. For example, when the narrator talks about how he would describe the view from the airplane window as he’s landing in Santo Domingo if only this were a different kind of story, when he goes on and describes it anyway—moving us through the time of the narrative, through the space of the landscape so deftly that there’s almost no perceptible shift until we get to the next section of the story—it’s a marvel.

Junot Diaz said that when he finished writing this story, his hands were shaking. Every single time I finish reading it—and sometimes when I’m still in the middle of reading it—I have the same feeling.

1 May 2006 | selling shorts |