The Short Version: Some years ago, in an unnamed South American country, there was a theater troupe called Diciembre. They did guerrilla theater, their ‘leader’/playwright got arrested, and the world changed in the meantime. But when they launch a revival tour of their most famous play, a young actor lands a starring role and his life changes forever – subtly at first and then in violent, shocking ways.
The Review: When I was an undergrad, I took a class on theater and social responsibility (one of the best classes I took at BC, actually). And one of the best lectures of that class was when another prof from the department talked about Augusto Boal and the Theatre of the Oppressed, in Brazil. He gave us an analogy about how we could do guerrilla theater at BC and while we didn’t do it because it probably would’ve been a disaster (both theatrically and legally), the story has stuck with me. In my adult life, it’s stayed with me and I’ve had the chance to work with people like the Belarus Free Theatre, who’re doing something quite like what Henry did with The Idiot President.
So the idea of a novel about a play that could topple governments – or at least threaten them – has always been an interesting one to me. But also the story of a young actor, making a bold choice, giving up the comfort of his life in order to pursue a crazy dream… that’s something I never did. So yeah, it’s interesting. And Alarcón keeps it interesting, profoundly so, until the larger mystery starts to unravel in the back end of the novel.
We’re initially a little destabilized. There’s a sense of almost journalistic clarity about the writing – the interviews, the occasional first-person interjections, the hints of foreboding – that make it clear there’s more to this story than we’ll know until, undoubtedly, the end. And while there are a couple of easy guesses regarding what does, in fact, happen… well, I’ll wager that your guess is probably wrong. Nothing on your intelligence, dear reader – but Alarcón keeps moving the book away from where you think it’s going, looping instead back towards something else. And if you keep making right turns, eventually you’ve gone in a circle.
I don’t want you to think too hard about the title, I don’t – it’s not that portentous – but there is something about the idea of blindly ending up walking in circles, realizing only after you’ve got back to the start that that’s what you’ve been doing, that fills the air around this book. Whether it’s the idea of the revival of the play or the relationship between Nelson and Henry or even just the way that all of the characters continue to come back to certain things… it hangs over the book, ghost-like.
The play in question and the revival tour are easily the most interesting part of the novel. For me, anyway. I found that I didn’t care about whatever tragedy occurred at the ‘end’ of the tour – I was more engaged by the tour itself. By these three men, so different yet united over the same goal, taking this play to people who don’t get to see theater. That’s a big thing for me (for anyone at The Public, I don’t doubt) and not just because we have to broaden our audience to survive: the interaction of people with a play for the first time… it cannot be recaptured. It cannot be faked. There is something truly magical in those moments that fades, if you go as often as I do. Or perhaps not fades but shifts, into a different sort of magic. And Alarcón’s description of these scenes, these sequences… it’s beautiful. Another different sort of magic, all to itself.
But it must be said: the magic fades by the end of the novel. I don’t want to call it a cop-out or a disappointment – because it isn’t, not really, and it was the author’s decision and it’s the story he wanted to write so who am I to call it that? But the thing of it is, I don’t think it bore up the weight of what had come before. The novel is such an in-depth look into Nelson’s life that, in the end, we’re rushed through the denouement to the point that we don’t really have any time to process that “this is what happened” / realize “this is now how the rest of the story has been colored for me by that reveal”. It may not have been a disappointment but I was disappointed.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. The first 7/8s, really, of the novel are quite good. Hypnotic, almost. Alarcón captures the magic of theater, the mystery of it too – and the magic/mystery of interpersonal relationships as well. And the cloud of (say it again!) mystery around the novel builds and grows and then when it’s cleared away… you read the last 50 or so pages with an “oh… so, that’s it?” sort of reaction. You can’t deny Alarcón’s talent as a writer but I just wish the novel had ended up packing more punch.