Whenever I come across a book that I find utterly irreducible, I prefer to do a list of ten reasons why you should read said book. I’ve done it for In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell and & Sons by David Gilbert, both of which are lovely for entirely different reasons. Today’s offering is no exception, a lovely book that defies summation (though I’ll try anyway) and evades review. At Night We Walk In Circles by Daniel Alarcón is…many things.
(This is already going well.)
It’s the story of a young actor, Nelson, who joins a guerilla theater troupe. The troupe revives the absurdist play “ The Idiot President”, performing it around the rural countryside for baffled peasants. The plot of the ludicrous play is “centered on an arrogant, self-absorbed head of state and his manservant. 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. These included helping him dress, combing his hair, reading his mail, etc. The president was fastidious and required everything 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.” This play, performed years earlier during a period of civil unrest, caused its writer, Henry, to spend years in prison convicted of terrorism. Once released, Henry returns to the play with Nelson and fellow actor Patalarga. Hilarity does not ensue. In fact, we spend the whole novel knowing that something dreadfully awful happens to Nelson. Nelson’s demise is revealed slowly, carefully, and – ultimately – ambiguously.
That being said, here are ten reasons to pick up At Night We Walk In Circles:
10. Because the story is set in an unnamed location. Cue the geography guessing games (and the Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? theme song). My money’s on Peru.
9. Because Alarcón said this of the writing process: There was nothing about the writing of this book that was fast-paced, or dynamic. This was a terrible, terrible seven years of creative stasis and dysfunction. …
(Incidentally, this is exactly how I feel about writing this review.)
8. Alarcón excels at creating the tortured artist. Nelson longs for what he cannot have and cannot achieve – he longs for his unfaithful girlfriend, he envies his brother’s expatriation, he wants a more successful acting career…
7. Because of this passage:
Henry explained that it’s like shattered glass; while it’s impossible that two pieces could splinter in precisely the same pattern, in the end, it doesn’t matter because the effect is identical.
6. And this one:
Nelson sat by the window and watched his city, as if bidding farewell. It wasn’t an unpleasant drive: at this speed, along these roads, beside these fallen monuments, the capital presented its most attractive face: that of a hardworking, dignified metropolis, settled by outcasts and opportunists; redeemed each day by their cheerless toil and barely sublimated willingness to throw everything away for a moment’s pleasure. “Isn’t it lovely?” Henry asked from the front seat. Patalarga had fallen asleep; Nelson was lost in thought. The city was lovely. There could be no place in the world to which he belonged so completely. That was why he’d always dreamed of leaving, and why he’d always been so afraid to go.
5. Due to the unknown narrator, the novel is mysterious, suspenseful, and at times a bit frustrating due to pivotal information being withheld. However, when the identity and relationship of the narrator is finally revealed, the pieces fall into place – a bit melodramatically, perhaps, but quite well nonetheless.
4. Playing off #5, the novel illustrates society’s obsession with violence brilliantly and unexpectedly (particularity the morbid fascination with what precedes it and what follows it).
3. It’s an in depth, dramatic character study made interesting by the surprising twist at the end.
2. I’ve never seen a novel that uses so many semi-colons. Depending on your punctuative preferences, this could go either way on the likability scale. I’m rather fond of the transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.
1. The ambiguity. Love it or hate it, there’s plenty of it in this novel.
Irreverent reasoning aside, At Night We Walk in Circles* is a very good novel, albeit a difficult one to describe. It’s an uncertain, vague, beautiful depiction of the anxiety and effects civil unrest can cause a population as seen through the eyes of men who are naturally dramatic (given their profession). Despite this, the majority of the novel manages to remain understated and elegantly written. Recommended for fans of dramatic literary fiction. 4/5.
*I was given a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.