Thursday, October 29, 2009

Alarcón in BASS 2009


This year’s volume of The Best American Short Stories is off to a dour start. The series editor’s Foreword tells us that, “[a]t this time, all sorts of publishing seem destined to disappear, or at least exit from this challenging time enormously scathed. I have talked with editors who claim that literature is dead” (p. ix).

Then we get this edition’s editor, Alice Sebold, elaborating further in her Introduction: “We are living, as I write this, in the worst economic conditions almost any of us can remember. In the world of publishing, good people have lost their jobs, and more job losses are on the horizon. Whole divisions of venerable publishing houses are falling away. Historic names are disappearing overnight, there one day and gone the next. The individuals who have survived so far are not quite sure why, and spend hours every day doing a job—editing quality fiction—that the powers that be are beginning to deem no longer necessary” (p. xv). In such a milieu, she goes on to say, best ofs—along with other awards and prizes—are a good way to help talented writers stand out.

Well, in the face of such a dismal diagnosis, there we have it, BASS 2009. That’s always interesting news. I’ll comment on the volume as a whole later, but some things stand out. Four stories (out of twenty) came from The New Yorker, which is a huge number for a single magazine that publishes a story per issue. It’s also noteworthy that a single electronic journal, American Short Fiction, had two of its stories chosen for BASS 2009. I had discussed one already (Ethan Rutherford’s “The Peripatetic Coffin”), and I must admit I was somewhat surprised when I finally saw it here, in print; it’s not a bad story, sure, but is it one of the twenty best published in the US and Canada over a whole year? I don’t know.

The first story in the volume is Daniel Alarcón’s “The Idiot President,” which I missed when it was published last year in The New Yorker (here). This story was hatched as part of Alarcón’s new and unfinished novel, but it “took on a life of its own,” as the author says in a note at the end. I’ll spend the rest of the post briefly discussing that piece.

I had discussed a story by Alarcón a while back, and I was left with half-hearted appreciation: yes, it’s good, but it’s not something to go gaga over. The same goes for “The Idiot President.”

We’re back to a remote setting, this time high in the Andes, where everything always seems unbearably cold for the narrator, an urbanite called Nelson who’s always longing to move away to California. Nelson goes on a two-month tour of the countryside, with a politically motivated theatre company called Diciembre. They perform the play “The Idiot President,” in which a despotic president chooses random people from the population to serve him for a day. The idea for the play is good, and Alarcón says it was the “spark” that set off the entire story. The theater company visits far-off settings, and the story comes to a climax during a performance in a mining town: there is no electricity for the night performance, and the show takes place using the miners’ helmet lights. It’s a powerful image.

I liked that the story didn’t end there. It was bold of Alarcón to keep going. People probably advised him against it. The story continues. Nelson doesn’t move to California. He drifts hazily on with his life, working odd jobs and living on the verge of impecuniousness. He puts all his hopes on getting a small part as an informant in a soap opera. He feels he’s fated to get the part: the character’s name in the soap is Alejo, and that was also the name of the character Nelson played in “The Idiot President.” After a month, though, measured by the creep of forest fires in the inaccessible California, nobody had called.

There are some interesting asides on how acting bleeds into life (and viceversa: the whiter-skinned of the crew plays the president, while the darker-skinned plays the servant). There are some nice thoughts on the changes wreaked by the country’s prosperity, the sense that much has been lost, and that a dictatorial unanimity has crawled into power. That was all handled well, as are many of the tale’s details, placed carefully and teasingly throughout the story. But I must admit I did want to see a narrative that didn’t take place in far-off locales, with such a hearty presence of the exotic. Maybe next time. For now, though, “The Idiot President” is worth reading.

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