11/6/2013 12:01:00 AM On the Bookshelf:At Night We Walk in Circles
At Night We Walk in Circles,
by Daniel Alarcón (Riverhead Books, $27.95)
Reviewed by Katie Capaldi
Between the Covers | Harbor Springs
Daniel Alarcón's second novel (his first, Lost City Radio, having won countless accolades and setting the stage for his most important work to date), At Night We Walk in Circles, introduces readers to an unrivaled, fresh and significant voice. In fact, over the summer, I had a visiting customer in the store who bemoaned the fact that "there has been no really great literature for decades." I challenged her that perhaps she wasn't looking in the right places, and proceeded to stack her pile with works by Roberto Bolaño and Jesse Ball and Lydia Davis and David Foster Wallace. I insisted that there is really no shortage of written work out there to challenge and inspire the courageous reader, but that it may require looking beyond the traditional bestseller lists. Needless to say, Alarcón's story speaks to this very same courageous reader.
At Night We Walk in Circles is set in an unnamed, yet fully realized, South American country. The nation's young men return from their wars without hope. Too many never return at all, leaving a string a widows and suddenly childless mothers behind. It is vague, and perhaps unnecessary to know how long the land and its people have been ravaged, but as is so often the case, art becomes an influential vehicle of protest. This is the case for playwright Henry Nuñez, whose fictitious stage production, The Idiot President, leads to his arrest on charges of terrorism and his subsequent internment in the nation's prison system.
The notoriety of this play, and that of its original troupe of actors, known as Diciembre, serves, however, as the catalyst for our lead character's journey towards his own tragic downfall. Nelson is a young theater student who manages to secure a role in a traveling reproduction of Nuñez's drama. Weary from looking after his aging mother, and with the newfound knowledge that his girlfriend has taken a lover, Nelson embraces his portrayal of the president's son, and the unexpected turns he encounters as the trio of actors makes their way from one insular village to another.
It is during their stay in one of these small towns, known simply as T---, that Nuñez precipitously reveals a secret to the family of his once-companion and prison confidante. This mistaken utterance heralds unintended consequences for the zealous and reckless Nelson, and so beings a chain of events, the likes of which none had ever seen coming.
Despite a plot that may seem linear enough, the true mastery of the storytelling arrives through the voice of the nameless narrator, who increasingly takes on a vital and complicated guise, and slowly reveals himself to be dangerously closer to the beating heart of the story than originally surmised. We, as readers, begin to rely on this narrator to supply much in the way of back story and subplot, and yet continually question his motives and loyalties.
One cannot help but think that Alarcón has found some wicked delight in keeping his readers perpetually expecting the bomb to detonate and blow the story wide open. It is not until the literal, final word, however, that we realize just how subtly and respectfully he has choreographed the many tiny explosions along the way.
At Night We Walk in Circles has not yet been available for a week, but I have already read it twice over the course of the last few months. It is that important, that nuanced, that gorgeous, that sublime. If ever a book had the uncanny ability to intoxicate with its lyricism and make staggeringly sober with its intent, this is the one. The face of literature is changing course, and Alarcón is undeniably at the healm.
As for that customer who bemoaned the loss of great literature, I can only hope to see her again next summer and issue further proof that it truly does exist. I will press into her hands Alarcón's breathtakingly accomplished work and insist simply, "Read this."