Lost in the Big Picture

At Night We Walk in Circles

I first learned about Daniel Alarcón in The New Yorker’s collection of 20 authors under 40. His story in the collection, “Second Lives,” chronicles the disparate paths of two brothers, the older of whom moves from their South American country to the United States, while the younger is left behind to feel trapped in his own home. The younger brother, Nelson, is the main character of Alarcón’s newest novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, which takes place years after the short story and was published in October. It’s receiving heaps of well-deserved praise. Alarcón has been the recipient of a PEN USA award, a Guggenheim fellowship, and is a former Fulbright scholar to Perú. At Night We Walk in Circles is his third book.

I met Alarcón at the 2012 Aspen Summer Words festival. Their theme that year was “Solazú,” an invented word used to summarize the idea of celebrating stories from across Latin America and the Carribean. Alarcón was one of the speakers, sharing the stage with Francisco Goldman, Edwidge Danticat, Luis Urrea, Gioconda Belli, and others. Later, after the panels on homelands and violence, I stepped into a hallway in the Hotel Jerome Bar to find Alarcón staring at an old newspaper that was framed on the wall. The newspaper was from the day of a famous event, the moon landing or V-J Day, but he was looking at one of the small columns near the bottom of the page. He pointed to it, then motioned me over.

“This is a short story,” he said. “I wish I knew what happened here.” The column was something absurd: a man robbing a hospital, or something like that. It was missing all the important details, the whys and the hows, leaving the decades-later reader to fill in the blanks on their own.

Daniel Alarcón

Daniel Alarcón

I thought of that column while reading At Night We Walk in Circles. The theme of a small, meaningful story being lost in the big picture really drives the narration and the narrator of Alarcón’s newest novel. This is not new to his work, though, both his collection of short stories War by Candlelight and his first novel Lost City Radio are filled with characters who have lost control or meaning in their lives because of larger events going on in the politics and country around them. Other strands connect the three works though. One reader recently asked on Twitter, “Daniel Alarcón solo sabe escribir sobre la violencia política???” (“Does Daniel Alarcón only know how to write about political violence?”)

And it’s true. Alarcón does write a lot about violence, especially political violence. But his writing’s relationship with violence is nuanced. At Night We Walk in Circles is set more distant from war than his previous books. (Most of his work is set in a fictionalized South American country that’s loosely based on Perú, much like Márquez’s work set in a fictionalized Colombia.) Nelson is a young man fresh out of college when he joins a pair of veteran actors on a tour through the countryside. Ultimately he gets trapped in patterns and situations so enmeshing they’re almost a kind of fate. As the book progresses, Nelson finds himself playing more and more roles for more and more audiences—his girlfriend, the crowds gathered at each play, and even the other actors offstage. This works out for Nelson; as the typical recent college graduate, he has no idea what role he wants to play for himself.

The attitude of At Night towards the war is not just one of resignation and dread, which is present in Lost City Radio and War by Candlelight—it’s also strangely nostalgic. The narrator describes the “narcotic effects of peace” and says, “No one cared about human rights anymore.” Life in At Night seems more uncertain post-war. Like Nelson, there are many characters in the book who seem to have lost a purpose they once had, purpose that’s not necessarily tied to the war but is guilty by association. “On good days,” the narrator says of one character, “he could avoid thinking about his life.”

At Night We Walk in Circles is an evolution of Alarcón’s storytelling, and the easiest way to see that is to look at the journalism present in the book. Many of his previous characters are journalists of one stripe or another, including the main character of Lost City Radio, Norma, who is the titular radio show’s host. In previous works, however, the journalism of the characters is just another detail of the setting, just another descriptor that helps the reader build empathy. In At Night, journalism drives the entire narrative. The story is punctuated by questions and observations from a (mostly) absent narrator, and the narrator’s comments serve to draw our attention to certain details, or to answer questions we as readers might’ve already been asking. There are moments where this feels intrusive, but ultimately they serve to raise the book’s already high stakes and tension. The ending of the book is like a slow-motion train wreck: we see it coming from a long way away, even if we’re not sure what exactly is going to happen, and we can’t help but stare.

Daniel Alarcón, Francisco Goldman, and Junot Díaz (photo courtesy of Radio Ambulante)

Daniel Alarcón, Francisco Goldman, and Junot Díaz (photo courtesy of Radio Ambulante)

When I saw Alarcón in Aspen, the San Francisco-based Latin America radio storytelling program Radio Ambulante was just getting started: the first episode had aired about two months prior. Since then, Radio Ambulante has won awards, entered into partnerships with established public radio organizations, and hosted a night of fundraising that put Alarcón on stage with authors Francisco Goldman and Junot Díaz. All episodes of the program are available online, for free, from both their site (radioambulante.org) and as podcasts. The show follows a This American Life-style format: personal stories typically told with minimal narration from the producers, and these individual stories often serve to highlight a bigger political or social situation. One episode tells the story of teenager Reza Salazar, who moved to North Carolina after having grown up in Perú, Colombia, and Argentina. Reza tries to fit in at his high school, and ultimately learns why the N-word is “La Palabra Prohibida” – “The Prohibited Word,” and the title of the episode. Alarcón is the executive producer, and it seems like his journalistic enterprise is having a measurable effect on his writing. At Night was born out of real trips to Perú’s prisons that Alarcón undertook as part of an assignment from Harper’s.

This mixing of genres and mediums is what excites me most about Alarcón’s future work. It’s hard not to make a comparison to another San Francisco rockstar writer, Dave Eggers, as Alarcón uses his blended writing to give exposure to the individual faces that sometimes get lost in politics and conflict. In Aspen, Alarcón told the audience that people were often disappointed he wasn’t more involved politically. But it’s hard not to read At Night or listen to Radio Ambulante and not feel like the stories expose some truth that begs for action, for social justice, and for the audience to strive to learn more.

Graham Oliver is a graduate student in Austin, Texas. His work has previously appeared, or is slated to appear in, the Harvard Educational Review, Ploughshares’ blog, the Front Porch Journal, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about family, legacy, and genealogy.

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