(Current fiction & past quality fiction)
Neither in Spanish nor English does Daniel Alarcón write as rhythmically as Roberto Bolaño or as profoundly as Mario Vargas Llosa. Yet suddenly Alarcón seems to be elevated to similar heights as some kind of literary savior of dual language luminosity by a few critics coast to coast.
Just 14 days after the official publication date (Halloween) for his latest novel, “At Night We Walk in Circles” (Riverhead), attempts to locate him on the publisher’s website were met with glaring headlines to the effect that The New York Times had profiled the author as “Hot Talent.”
That may help sell books but reading the novel left Examiner numb. Others felt the same. Here’s another detracted reader from Amazon:
“Sure, there is insight into the human soul, but nothing especially interesting, and certainly nothing new. The characters -- well, I just didn't feel them, or feel for them. There was no connection, that feeling that you care about people even when you know you are reading fiction; So perhaps people more sensitive than I will love this book, as quite a few reviewers have, but for me, I was bored.”
Examiner knows you can’t please everyone, but gee whiz, does Alarcón, 36, really deserve to be labeled “hot talent” for such thin work? Not to say there isn’t plenty of supporting commentary. Take Eric Simonoff, a literary agent at William Morris Endeavor who represents three Pulitzer Prize winners, as well as more than a dozen bestselling authors. His review for Publishers Weekly explained the plot as a matter of fact but concluded, “Much of the book reads like a needlessly protracted warm-up for (the climax), and what follows is too melodramatic for the reader to take entirely seriously. Still, Alarcón recreates the tense atmosphere of what it is like to live in a country where words have consequences.”
A country where words have consequences? Well, try “Read my lips! No new taxes.” Or more recently, “You can keep your insurance policy.” Anyway, according to The New York Times, born in Lima, Alarcón grew up outside Birmingham, Ala., where his parents, both physicians, sent him to a progressive private high school. Spanish was spoken at home and summers were often spent in Peru. He earned an anthropology degree at Columbia, did some social work and teaching in Harlem, earned a master's from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and won a Fulbright scholarship that allowed him to return to Lima. Riverhead says he currently lives in San Francisco.
Examiner found the novel written painfully simplistic as though the author was reaching for something to say, perhaps even a compelling story to tell, but couldn’t quite squeeze it out. In sum, he took on large themes but they slipped from his embrace. In the end, one asks, “So what?”