American Delirium, the first novel published in English by award-winning Argentine novelist Betina González, presents a good challenge, its braided strands of storyline forming a convoluted vine. It’s easy to find oneself lost, sentence by sentence, in its tendrils and tangents, but when viewed from a bit of distance, the novel can be apprehended as one organic, twining whole (whose blooms, beware, might well be psychedelic).
González presents a recursive, non-linear narrative in terms of frequent and extensive flashbacks, mostly through characters’ self-told tales unfolding in their heads or on their tongues. She gives us a lot to work with.
American Delirium consists of three principal storylines set in an unnamed American town. Vik is an immigrant from a fictional Caribbean island where a fictional hallucinogenic plant, the elusive but enlightening albaria, is grown. He now works as a taxidermist in the local natural history museum where his job is to maintain dioramas that include stuffed birds and animals. His first experience with taxidermy proved wildly unsuccessful — an attempt to preserve his girlfriend’s expired pet canary as a surprise — but he was bitten by the taxidermy bug nonetheless. Vik’s strand of the narrative also involves his (accurate) suspicion that a woman is hiding in one of his closets – unnerved, he listens often at the closet door:
Vik thought he could hear the air enter her nose…[he] imagined her with her ear pressed to the wood… Maybe she could even see him through some crack he hadn’t noticed.
The second narrative line involves Vik’s co-worker, Beryl, who lived in a druggy commune in her youth. Beryl is the focus of lengthy flashbacks. The town is now suffering a spate of vicious attacks perpetrated by deer. Yes, deer — often involving graveside ambushes of mourners. Beryl, now a senior citizen, begins training a novice group of senior citizens to hunt the deer down and put an end to the attacks. Beryl’s actual motive, however, is to demonstrate that seniors can be seen as competent contributors to society. This task is not smooth sailing.
Lastly, we find a young girl, Berenice, whose mother has disappeared; the town is currently beset by a parents’ movement, the ‘drop-outs,’ who abandon their children and leave home to live in a commune in the woods. Berenice has trouble coming to terms with the idea that she is one of the movement’s ‘left-overs’, that her mother has, without warning, gone back to nature. Now, after many days of waiting for her return, she is on the lookout for an adult to take her in hand and function as her mother.
There’s a lot going on in this town. One way or another, what twines these strands together appears to be the mysterious albaria plant. It’s cultivated on the island from which Vik hails and was used to achieve enlightenment by Beryl in her youthful commune days as well as by the present-day ‘dropouts’ in the woods. It’s even thought by some that grazing on albaria is the source of the deer aggression.
In González’s novel, there’s a good deal of shifting among narrators within chapters and each discursive plotline is elaborated in a looping narrative space-time, with some important characters appearing solely in expansive flashbacks and with new tendrils of plot regularly sprouting. The difficulty with American Delirium lies not with the plot but rather with its somewhat scattered mode of presentation and in the end, the author’s tying-up feels a bit engineered and hurried.
Taking a wider perspective, the storylines tend to flirt with the uncertain borderline demarcating the merely zany from the farcical. Take the relationship between Vik and the dwarfish woman living in his closet; she’s a significant character who is not fully-formed and whose motive, apart from merely assuming that Vik knows something about albaria, remains opaque. She goes from six days of silence behind the locked closet door to a wrestling match with Vik when he finally dislodges her and then, jarringly, moves from kitchen table conversation over bread and cheese to a relatively graphic, if truncated, sexual encounter initiated by her.
While some of the principal characters, including Vik and Berenice, are very clearly drawn and motivated, others are not. It’s easy at times for a reader, or at least this reader, to feel a bit lost in the tangle and in need of enlightenment. Albaria, anyone?
On the other hand, and not to be discounted, throughout American Delirium we find characters’ interesting ruminations upon a variety of important matters, including parenting and childhood, hunting and the environment, drug use and dropping out of society, the stages and meaning of life, and the process of aging. González’s descriptive writing is very strong throughout and the novel’s quirky, creative energy is engaging.