Second Acts: Daniel Alarcón's "At Night We Walk in Circles"

Michael LaPointe reviews the much-anticipated second novel from Daniel Alarcón.

By Michael LaPointeNovember 13, 2013

    Second Acts: Daniel Alarcón's "At Night We Walk in Circles"

    At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón. Riverhead. 384 pages.

    IN 2010, Daniel Alarcón faced a crisis. Recently vaunted as one of The New Yorker's "20 Under 40" — "young writers who capture the inventiveness and vitality of contemporary American fiction" — he was struggling to complete his second novel.  His debut, War by Candlelight (2005), a collection of stories, and his first novel, Lost City Radio (2007) examine his native continent of South America, but in an interview with his publisher, Alarcón signaled that the next book would be a significant departure: "I'm done, for now, with stories played out against the backdrop of Latin American politics. [...] I don't simply want to write books that function as reports on the developing world for American audiences."

    While working on the new book, Alarcón edited The Secret Miracle (2010), a "novelist's handbook" comprising wisdom on the craft from writers as diverse as Mario Vargas Llosa, Claire Messud, and Stephen King.  The task seems to have brought out some of Alarcón's anxieties about his current project. "I'm aware, of course, how ridiculous it is for someone who's written only one novel to be assigned the task of editing a book about how to write one," he says in the forward, but he finds it "reassuring to be reminded that everyone works differently, that there is no single way to arrive at your destination, that, in fact, your destination is necessarily a very different place from anyone else's."

    The destination, for his new novel, was deletion. In an interview this summer with The New Yorker, Alarcón recalled, "I finished a draft of the [second] book in 2010, read it, and hated it. It was awful." The Secret Miracle may have encouraged him to recognize failure and begin again. As Paul Auster advises in the section on "False Starts," "What you have to do is throw away what you've done and start all over again." Said Alarcón to The New Yorker, "I spent a few months sulking, and then decided to throw it all out and start over."

    Accolades have swarmed each offering by Alarcón, and inflated the expectations.  The first paperback edition of War by Candlelight came with no fewer than six pages of praise, from the Los Angeles Times to the Baton Rouge Advocate. The roiling cityscape of "beautiful, disgraced Lima" — where "dying is a local sport" — forms the collection's symbolic core. Alarcón's characters, whether they remain in Peru or emigrate to America, struggle to claim dignity from the violent, collapsing, incoherent city, as if hacking through the jungle with machetes. The power of these stories, still Alarcón's best work to date, derives from his resistance to nostalgia. All too easily in the emigrant's mind, writes Alarcón, "the list of things you miss [about your home country] multiplies beyond all reason, nostalgia clouding everything." But although Alarcón emigrated to Birmingham, Alabama, at the age of three — he has called himself un norteamerincaico: "a North Amer-Incan" — War by Candlelight demonstrates a humane, nuanced realism, loyal to truth and unclouded by emigrant's romance.

    Lost City Radio, Alarcon’s first novel, is set in an invented South American nation, "a make-believe country," recovering from years of civil war. (In War by Candlelight, Peru is figured as a "make-believe nation.") The protagonist, Norma, runs the novel's eponymous radio program, which seeks to reunite families, friends, and lovers from the countryside who fled to the capital in wartime. Norma herself is searching for her husband, who spent time as a political prisoner before vanishing into the jungle. The novel shares the radio show’s goal: to form connection. Dramatic irony is employed to sustain the book, as identities are concealed and revealed, and difficult truths, like the traumas of the war, erupt to break and re-form bonds.

    Some years after its release, Lost City Radio struggles to stand under the laurels heaped upon it. In the third-person, with a broad canvas, Alarcón seems unmoored. The writing is sometimes sentimental — "Norma smiled at him, and she looked like sunshine" — or sometimes baffling — "the boots bruised him like tender caresses" — and many characters, especially those Alarcón is politically inclined against, are reduced to stereotype. Indeed, there is a general sense that Alarcón too badly wants readers to understand that he is politically on-side. Thus we have simplistic, moralizing interventions — "What does the end of a war mean if not that one side ran out of men willing to die?"— and a curiously old-fashioned diction around anything sexual: "There was a girlie magazine open on the dashboard." The result is a novel that lacks the ambiguity and contradiction, and therefore all the realism and power, of the stories.

    In The Secret Miracle, Alarcón reveals that by 2004 he'd "been thinking about [Lost City Radio] for five years," and it could be that, enthralled by its concept, he simply needed to get the book out in order to push forward with his art. Alarcón wanted, as he said, to tell stories not set against the backdrop of his politics, to "write books that advance the cause of story-telling," and the crisis of 2010, resulting in a scrapped manuscript, suggests an artist in full reinvention, boldly striving to make it new.

    At Night We Walk in Circles is the product of Alarcón's struggle, and though it is not nearly the departure he hinted at, the novel marks a significant advance in the young writer's art. Set in a postwar South American country that shares place names with that of Lost City Radio — this is also a make-believe country, "the capital [...] being reimagined" — At Night We Walk in Circles centers upon Nelson, a young actor cast into a touring production by a guerilla theater group called Diciembre. Radically subversive during "the anxious years" of civil war, Diciembre is a legend among actors of Nelson's generation: "They became known for their pop reworkings of García Lorca, their stentorian readings of Brazilian soap opera scripts."

    But 2001 is a long way from Diciembre's "glory days at the end of the 1980s." The group was changed utterly when in 1986, Henry Nuñez, Diciembre's lead actor and playwright, "was arrested for incitement, and left to languish for the better part of a year at a prison known as Collectors." The act of "incitement" was his play, The Idiot President, a burlesque satire of dictatorial excess:

    Each day, the president's servant was replaced; the idea being that eventually every citizen of the country would have the honor of attending to the needs of the leader [...] The president was fastidious and required everything to follow a rather idiosyncratic protocol, so the better part of each day was spent teaching the new servant how things should be done. Hilarity ensued.

    While serving his sentence for "terrorism," Henry fell in love with a man named Rogelio, who was killed when "in response to an uprising by inmates, two of the more volatile sections of Collectors were razed, bombed, and burned by the army." Although Henry would go on to have a daughter, and live with a semblance of middle-class normality in the 1990s, Rogelio remains center-stage in the playwright's inner world.

    For 15 years, Henry has kept aloof from Diciembre. But in 2001, the war long since over and the nation enjoying "the narcotic effects of peace," a reunion tour is suggested to commemorate the founding of the group. Joined by Patalarga, a jocose veteran of Diciembre who will play the president's servant, and now by the young actor Nelson, Henry agrees to tour The Idiot President through "the heart of the heart of the country. It was the tour Diciembre had intended to do, fifteen years earlier, until Henry's arrest scuttled those plans." Henry's own autocratic personality — with his "ungenerous eye" and "habitual selfishness" — mirrors the president's, and the actors' roles on-stage come to resonate with their lives off-stage. Indeed, Nelson's father has died, thwarting his plans for emigration, and the young actor is neatly cast in the role of "the idiot president's idiot son."

    By committing himself to the tour, Nelson is jeopardizing his tenuous relationship with Ixta — "a riddle he felt compelled to solve" who is involved with another man — but "no one [...] admired Henry's work as much as Nelson," and so he sets off for the provinces with the quixotic old pair of subversives. Nelson has never experienced the highlands of his nation: "He'd always been taught it was two different countries: the city, and everything else." The tour will be a rugged apprenticeship, as Diciembre will play "in churches, garages, fields, plazas, fairgrounds, and workshops [...] but [never] in a proper theater."

    From the beginning, readers are given to understand that the story is being told in retrospect, and that something has "happened" to Nelson. Herein lies Alarcón's major innovation. Rather than being narrated in the third-person, which dissipated Lost City Radio, At Night We Walk in Circles is told as a piece of documentary by an unknown journalist. The story is broken up by quotes from the interviews he has conducted with the characters — some generous, some evasive, and some hostile — in an effort to piece together the story of the tour and Nelson's fate. As the novel progresses, we see the journalist become increasingly active in the story, as his own life, we learn, briefly intersects with Nelson's at a vital moment.

    The point-of-view anchors the novel and provides suspense, as if we’re watching a current event unfold. Whereas Alarcón seemed always to be searching for Lost City Radio's rightful tone, journalistic prose comes naturally to him, and he seems liberated by breaking the novel's fourth wall. While Lost City Radio's abrupt shifts in time feel arbitrary and artificial, in At Night We Walk in Circles, the journalist's effort to reconstruct events makes such shifts natural and necessary. And though the narrative asides in Lost City Radio feel prescriptive, we more easily accept political, even moral opinions from the pen of a journalist.

    While Nelson is on tour, he learns that Ixta is pregnant, and that the child is not his. Rather than returning to the capital, he pushes forward into the provinces, a zone that eludes his comprehension: "No matter where you went, no matter how far you traveled into the far-flung countryside, the provinces were always farther out. It was impossible to arrive there." Meanwhile, although hilarity is meant to ensue in The Idiot President, the play is revealing its darker shades: "Fifteen years ago, Henry had a sense of humor.  [Darkness] was always there, in the script [...] but he was emphasizing it now."

    Henry diverts the tour itinerary toward the small village where Rogelio, his lover from prison, was born. The visit represents "A way to close off the past, to make peace with it," but when Henry encounters Rogelio's elderly mother, he discovers that news of her son's death — more than a decade past — has been kept from her by Jaime, Rogelio's brother, whose involvement with the drug trade occasioned Rogelio's imprisonment. Henry has disturbed the old woman's mind, which is sliding in and out of time in the throes of dementia, and Jaime is bent on revenge. But in an unlikely twist of events, the mother mistakenly recognizes Nelson as Rogelio — Nelson being the same age Rogelio was when he vanished years ago — and Jaime brokers a deal to have Nelson "perform" as Rogelio for an indefinite period.

    In this way, we come to see Nelson — and his generation at large — as late victims of the war. The nation's traumas, though buried in the performance of peace, are nevertheless prone to irruption and violent catharsis. Nelson begins by reciting the lines of Henry's wartime script, and comes to improvise a life completely unrelated to him, operating within a network of trauma he did nothing to create. He has stepped onto the stage of some other play altogether, while his life with Ixta slips by in the capital. Will the nation ever move forward? The wartime generation scripts the present in order to compensate for its past losses, and Nelson's future — and, as we will discover, several others' — is sacrificed in order to sustain a false, long-since-subverted stability.  Ironically rewriting Lost City Radio’s earnest urge for connection, At Night We Walk in Circles becomes a novel of tragic restitution.

    Several of the earlier novel's flaws persist despite such reinvention. Again, many phrases feel uninterrogated, or thought out loud: "Morning came, as it always did," "her days went on without him; not in a blur, but yes, actually, in something of a blur."  Again, there is a reticence around sex not made any less awkward when Alarcón writes with deliberate vulgarity, as in a sexual fantasy shared between Henry and Rogelio: "he would have pressed his hard cock against her pussy, teased her until she begged him to come in [...] Is this why you came, woman?  Tell me it is!" And again, while those who brand Henry a "terrorist" are treated with contempt for their stereotypical minds, the novel conveniently attaches the drug trade to Jaime to account for his uncomplicated villainy, and the arguments of authority figures are invariably straw-men.  If these are the biases of our narrator, there is not enough space between the lines to see past them.

    There is also the common problem of a novel that centers on artists: in describing their works, the novelist must become, at least in concept, an interesting painter or photographer or, in this case, playwright. Even in War by Candlelight, Alarcón struggled to make the works justify the aura of respect around an artist: "a portrait of a man, eyes averted, his mouth squeezed in a tight grimace, gripping a hammer in his right hand, poised to nail a stake square into the flat of his left palm. He was blue and brown geometry against a red background. He was my father." He sounds like bad art, and in the same way, descriptions of The Idiot President (even just the title) and Dicimebre's "poetry nights that mocked the very idea of poetry" fail to substantiate the "mythology" surrounding the group, which accounts for the initial dramatic interest that will power us through the novel. The narrative occasionally lapses into ridicule of the play — it makes more sense, says Henry, "when there's less oxygen" — but such distancing treatment ("It wasn't even any good!") seems like compensation for the absence of a stimulating concept.

    But there is no mistaking this novel for anything less than a major advance for Alarcón. Although it does not see him departing from familiar territory, in the manner of its telling At Night We Walk in Circles is twice the achievement of his debut. What Alarcón called "the backdrop of Latin American politics" may yet fall away, if he chooses; but for now, his renewed focus on character, his obvious delight in the story's baroque twists, and his liberating, journalistic vantage, have reenergized his craft and pointed in promising directions. Surely the best is yet to come.


    Michael LaPointe is a writer and literary journalist in Vancouver, British Columbia.  He contributes to the Times Literary Supplement.

    LARB Contributor

    Michael LaPointe is a writer and critic in Toronto, Canada. He contributes to the Times Literary Supplement and writes a monthly literary essay for The Walrus.


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