Monday, August 16, 2010

Short-a-Day: Daniel Alarcón's "Second Lives"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, August 16 & 23, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 97.

Now this is what fiction's all about: showcasing different perspectives. Alarcón's hit upon a perfect example, too: two brothers, arbitrarily born eight years apart, one in America, one in a Spanish-speaking Third World country (itself never specifically named): "My parents set about trying to make babies: on spring nights, when they made the room smell of earth, summer nights, when the city felt like a swamp, autumn nights, falling asleep on top of the covers, winter nights, when the room boiled with sex." When Francisco leaves, the dream is that he will obtain a visa for his younger brother, but it soon becomes clear from his fewer-and-fartherer-between letters home that this is just a dream, and in fact, the future narration of his younger brother, Nelson, clarifies this: "Eventually, I got my Third World passport, the color of spilled red wine, but it was just for show. I still haven't had the chance to use it." 

Both brothers similarly indoctrinate themselves in American culture, and Nelson's slant is especially terrific: "I formulated opinions on America's multiple national dilemmas, which seemed thrillingly, beautifully frivolous: gays in the military, a President in trouble for a blow job." They are worlds apart, and even though Francisco's life isn't particularly good ("He repaired bicycles in suburban Detroit; worked as a greeter at a Wal-Mart in Dubuque, Iowa; moved furniture in Galveston, Texas; mowed lawns at a golf course outside Santa Fe"), it's worlds better than the strikes, riots, and depressions in his home country. How odd, really, that by a fluke alone, we can find ourselves in such different situations.

Alarcón errs, really, only in embedding a second story that is all too typical of America: Nelson's neighbors are a friendly couple, Alejandro and Luz, and Alejandro cheats on Luz--ruining her honor, as his mother delicately explains it to him, not just because of the affair, but because the mistress is shamefully older, which makes the act harder to explain. It doesn't really connect to the rest of the story, not even in the way that it develops Nelson's querulous voice. That's done better in a section like this:

He'd made it clear that I was a squatter in his room, an assertion I'd never thought to question. Just before he left, he'd warned me with bared teeth, frightening as only older brothers can be, not to touch a thing. In case he came back.... He threw an arm around me then, flexing it tight around my neck with the kind of casual brutality he often directed at me. I felt my face turning red; I was helpless. At ten and eighteen, we were essentially two different species.
There's also a cleverness to the descriptions, an undercurrent of desperate comedy, the last resort of those who are doomed through no fault of their own. Consider this:
I doubt any generation of young people has ever looked at a world map with such a powerful mixture of longing and anxiety; we were like inmates being tempted with potential escape routes.... We were mesmerized by the possibilities; we assumed every country was more prosperous than ours, safer than ours, and at this scale they all seemed tantalizingly near. The atlas was passed around like pornography, and if you had the chance to sit alone with it for a few moments you counted yourself lucky.
Look at all that we take for granted, Alarcón all but shouts. The next time we criticize the lack of high-paying jobs, or bemoan the limited amount of time we get for vacation (assuming we still have jobs), think about how ridiculous it is that we can travel at all. (Think of North Korea.) The story is never overtly political, never shoves anything in our face; instead, it enforces the earnest eagerness of children, and through those positive descriptions, we are better made to understand our unspoken negative choices. It's sobering, humbling, and Alarcon absolutely earns the ending to his story, in which Nelson attempts to get revenge on his brother by forgetting him: "I never managed it, of course." It's that final, casual yet challenging "of course" that shakes the reader; it's yet another reminder of our dismissive everyday language, our oblivious obviousness.