On the last page of Daniel Alarcón’s new novel, someone asks the narrator, “Do you understand?”
The narrator replies, “I do.” Honest readers may have a different response.
But a touch of bewilderment won’t keep you from being entranced by this story, which is so full of bait-and-switch that someone should alert the Bureau of Consumer Protection.
Alarcón is one of those rare writers getting away with doing exactly what he wants. He’s an Iowa Workshop graduate, a Fulbright scholar, a Guggenheim fellow and a Whiting Award winner. The Post named his previous novel, “Lost City Radio,” a “notable” book of 2007. Born in Lima, Peru, in 1977 and raised in Alabama, he has spent his career on various Best Writers Under 40 lists (the New Yorker, Granta, Smithsonian), and yet there’s something aged about his writing. His fiction hovers in that uncanny space mapped out by José Saramago where events seem both concrete and fabled.
Any summary of his new novel, “At Night We Walk in Circles,” is bound to be misleading. On one level it’s about a young actor involved in the revival of an absurdist play called “The Idiot President.” It was first performed, we’re told in the early pages, by a radical group during a civil war in an unnamed South American country. (Readers of “Lost City Radio” will recognize this Peruvian place.) The controversial play, which sounds like bad Ionesco, depicts a tyrannical ruler training a new manservant. At the end of each day, the servant is killed, only to be replaced by a new one. “The idea being,” Alarcón writes, “that eventually every citizen of the country would have the honor of attending to the needs of the leader.” In 1986, the repressive government closed down this “Theater for the People!” after just two performances and arrested the lead actor and playwright for incitement and terrorism.
But that was 15 years ago. Now, Alarcón says with a touch of sarcasm, peace and prosperity have returned. “No one cared about human rights anymore, not at home or abroad. They cared about growth. . . . The capital was being reimagined — as a version of itself where all that unpleasant recent history had never occurred.” In this hopeful, if amnesiac, time, “The Idiot President” has calcified into an artistic and political legend for hipsters. When a revival tour is proposed in 2001, a 22-year-old actor named Nelson is thrilled to land the part of the president’s son.
Like Rachel Kushner’s recent (and richer) novel, “The Flamethrowers,” this is a story about the initiation of a young artist who descends from the pretentious atmosphere of the conservatory to the capricious world of actual work. Until he got this part, Nelson had been fantasizing about joining his brother in America and writing “a murder mystery set in a futuristic brothel, where male robot-human hybrids paid extra to sleep with that increasingly rare species, the pure human female.” After a few weeks of rehearsal, the three-man cast heads off into the countryside, bringing theater to tiny, depressed towns that have never seen a play before.
It’s soon clear in these pages that we’re not walking in circles just at night. As Alarcón showed in “Lost City Radio,” he’s particularly interested in the ways we re-create events; the membrane between fantasy and what passes for real life here is easily torn. Each day as the members of the cast perform their bombastic political comedy for a handful of baffled peasants, they also engage in their own private dramas: Young Nelson, who’s grown “fond of escapism,” is busy re-imagining his failed romance back home, while the actor playing the president is secretly directing their tour toward an old lover’s house.
Alarcón as self-consciously philosophical as Rivka Galchen (another New Yorker darling), but there’s a similar quality to their writing: a straight-faced presentation of increasingly absurd incidents. It’s not just that “one man in his time plays many parts”; It’s that one man must play conflicting parts simultaneously. For Nelson, that challenge becomes most acute during the tour in a rundown “town where people did not die so much as disappear very slowly, like a photograph fading over time.” There, by a series of missteps, he finds himself drafted to play the part of a real person — but not himself. And that layering of reality and artifice eventually causes this dreamy young man to lose control of his own story in a surprising and poignant way.
Even if there’s nothing traditionally exciting about these obscure actors performing this absurd play in dusty town squares and run-down community centers, the story remains consistently compelling. For one thing, there’s Alarcón’s smoothly polished prose, flecked with wit and surprisingly epigraphic phrases. For another, the wobbly plot resists our efforts to divine what the novel is really about. Characters we initially assumed were important fall away, while people who seemed tangential suddenly become central. As in life, the most casual and inconsequential choices can wrench everything in a different, often tragic direction. While “the ill-fated tour” progresses, a sense of impending threat grows more ominous; placid scenes end suddenly with lines that knock the wind out of you.
But why is this obsessive narrator so determined to track down everyone who interacted with Nelson? For many chapters we’re not aware of him much at all. He interrupts only erratically to mention that he interviewed this or that character. He never gives his name; he won’t even identify his home town except by the abbreviation “T---.”
All this gets meta-weirder if you consider that five years ago, Alarcón published a story in the New Yorker called “The Idiot President” that involved these same characters doing mostly the same things, but it was narrated by Nelson himself. Now, another version of those events is reframed in the voice of this vampiric narrator, “as if,” he says, “by sharing their various recollections, we could together accomplish something on his behalf.”
How you respond to this coy blend of hero worship and evasiveness will determine whether you find Alarcón’s new novel haunting or frustrating. “At Night We Walk in Circles” couldn’t be called a thriller except ironically, but the story’s collision of deception, naivete and violence will definitely push you off balance.
Do you understand?
Charles is the deputy editor of Book World.
At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Charles and author Bethanne Patrick will talk about their favorite books of 2013 at One More Page, 2200 N. Westmoreland St., #101, Arlington. Call 703-300-9746.
AT NIGHT WE WALK IN CIRCLES
By Daniel Alarcón
Riverhead. 374 pp. $27.95