It’s perhaps fitting that Daniel Alarcón’s new novel Lost City Radio features a blurb from Colm Tóibín comparing the novel to George Orwell’s and Aldous Huxley’s works. Although Tóibín is almost assuredly comparing the imaginative scope of the novel to Orwell and Huxley, he has perhaps unwittingly also made a fitting comparison to Orwell’s and Huxley’s clunky prose style.1 Lost City Radio is by no means a bad novel, but it suffers heavily from its length and middling prose.
The novel is a little confusing to break down, so here’s the basic structure: Norma, who lives somewhere in a nameless Peru-esque country in Latin America, is the host of “Lost City Radio,” a program that helps reunite families separated by a 10-year civil war between the government and the curiously named “Illegitimate Legion.”2 It is ten years after the end of the civil war, and the novel begins with 11-year-old Victor’s arrival at the radio station. Victor, who is from the Village of 1797 (all villages have been stripped of their identities by the malicious government, and renamed with numbers), brings with him a list of missing people, one of whom Norma recognizes as her husband, who’s been missing since just before the end of the civil war. The last place he was seen was, of course, Village 1797. It doesn’t take much chronological work to figure out the twist in the plot, and much of the book is devoted to Norma dealing with the young boy Victor, her husband Rey’s life before he disappeared, and Manau, the man who brought Victor to the station after Victor’s mother drowns.
Alarcón is widely recognized as a major league talent, and the ambition of this novel is refreshing, as are the moments in which Alarcón writes with nuance. A mayor is described as “affable and corrupt.” The author brings to a light an interesting intersection between ritualized tribal violence and government sponsored violence (a younger Victor is forced to perform a ritual amputation on a tribesman). The government literally (and figuratively) buries people alive. The novel begins and ends with a nice cyclical image of death on the river.
Throughout the novel, there is a gentle reappropriation of the word “lost.” It refers to the people abducted by the government, a true sort of “lost generation,” and it’s an idea that taps lightly on the shoulders of the American expatriates partying on the Riviera—Hemingway, for instance, is an obvious influence on Alarcón’s prose. In subtly commenting on American authors it resembles the kind of clarity we’ve come to expect from Kazuo Ishiguro or Arundahti Roy. It points to the fact that Alarcón does have an eye for detail.
But, unfortunately, these few bright spots only serve to highlight the book’s greater shortcomings. Lost City Radio’s ambitious plot is ultimately felled by the aforementioned unimaginative prose and long stretches of summarization that take up much of the book. Radio host Norma’s grief is mistreated by the clichéd prose, as when, while touring a prison looking for her husband, Norma “turned away, stared into the mountains. Without the shanties, it could be a postcard.” Norma’s kind of escapism is more indicative of Alarcón’s prose than of Norma. Moreover, we’re told she has a “honey-voice.” Really? A novel ostensibly about a radio host, an exploration of identity and how voice functions in that regard, and the best Alarcón can come up with is that her voice sounds like honey?
Perhaps many would consider it unfair to criticize a book primarily on its prose style (in fact, John Updike, a major proponent of reviewing a book based on its ambition, regularly gets hammered for writing “too” well), and I recognize that I’m among the dissenting few as far as Alarcón’s talent is concerned, but I have trouble believing that someone so prone to falling into cliché and sentimentality (“he was a tangle of emotions”) is really the hotshot he’s made out to be.
In a way, this isn’t surprising. Alarcón’s hit-or-miss imagination is a big problem with Lost City Radio, and this shortcoming can be seen as far back as 2005, in a Salon piece Alarcón wrote about his own struggles with identity. At a literary fundraiser Alarcón is seated next to an older woman, who “spent her meal asking me about the exotic origins of my last name.” He goes on to explain to her what he knows about the origins of his last name: “I’m not sure why I told her this. I’m neither Spanish nor Moorish, and certainly not a linguist, but I felt she needed something to keep her occupied for a bit.” He goes on: “She gave me this wide-eyed look: That is so topical, she said. Like al-Qaida.”
This is a pretty troubling example that Alarcón has presented us with, because it displays a sort of embarrassingly bad ability to rotate his view of the world, to be compassionate. Isn’t that the cause of writers? To see the world anew? In this instance, Alarcón seemingly has dropped this compulsion, if he had it in the first place. It’s a pretty basic and obvious fact of life that there are people who are obnoxious and offensive. So what? Instead of making that point, why not delve into the serious emotional baggage a 60-year-old woman must be carrying around to be so concerned with things like topicality and appearing to be well-informed or intelligent.
The Salon piece especially bears mentioning when confronted with Norma’s description. Alarcón closes out the piece by writing, “when we should be judged on the basis of our ability to imagine worlds and empathize with our characters, we are instead reduced to merely representing that which we must surely know firsthand.” Yet in Lost City Radio Alarcón’s inability to imagine Norma in new ways begins to wear thin after about 50 pages.
Nabokov once wrote that “Style is not a tool, it is not a method, it is not a choice of words alone. Being much more than all this, style constitutes an intrinsic component or characteristic of the author’s personality.” And considering what Alarcón wrote in the Salon piece, is it any wonder that he failed to portray Norma’s psychology realistically, or truthfully? Alarcón has said that the novel began in him when he spent time in Peru following college. I wonder how it would have turned out if he’d approached it journalistically. It strikes me as too bad, but not surprising, that he ultimately failed to evoke a convincing portrait of the grief and anger of an older woman.
1 G.H. Orwell, V. Nabokov once snidely remarked.
2 I’m not sure how much Alarcón has taken from real life, but he surely could have come up with something better than this.
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