Reviews

War by Candlelight by Daniel Alarcón

Anne K. Yoder

The revolutionary heart, truly the essence of the Lima depicted within these pages, never grows old.


War By Candlelight

Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 208
Display Artist: Daniel Alarcón
Price: $23.95
Author: #243;n
US publication date: 2005-04
Amazon affiliate
Amazon

It's difficult navigating the media blitz announcing first books by young writers. The arrival of fresh blood coupled with the ability to string words seems the ideal formula for the new post-MFA literary darling. Still, despite the hype, Daniel Alarcón is a talented writer. By the ripe age of 28, he's already earned his MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, had his fiction showcased in The New Yorker, and received the Whiting Award for dazzling potential. His credentials and achievements are enviable, his writing ambitious and, at times, luminous. And while War by Candlelight deserves commendation -- the writing is fluid, the vision unwavering -- it perhaps doesn't deserve the mountains of unmitigated praise that have heralded its arrival.

Even with its faults, the book offers some finely crafted stories. "Flood" for one, as well as "City of Clowns," a sprawling piece that follows Chino, a journalist, as he wanders the feral streets of Lima after his father's death. Details of the absurd and the surreal form a smokescreen through which a cityscape emerges: 15 shoeshine boys march down the boulevard led by a clown on stilts; a protest wends its way through the city, snarling traffic in "beautiful, disgraced Lima, unhappy and impervious to change." By the end, Chino, himself dressed as a clown, runs into his mother on the street, unintentionally scaring her. It's a fitting end to a story where he's forever attempting to hide in his own skin.

Alarcón's strength lies in his ability to illustrate on the grand scale, to fill a landscape with striking details and depict extensive social networks without faltering under the weight of believability. He soars easily from the slightest detail to an abstract notion and just as smoothly back into the heart of the scene, as he does so seamlessly in the following passage:

Don José, watching his son toast the houses he would build for Peru's homeless; watching his son tremble with emotion at the warmth of the family surrounding him, recognized that Fernando's heart was like his own: nostalgic but combative, caring but suspicious, able to bundle great ideas into intractable knots of personal anxiety. It is the way men begin to carry the world with them, the way they become responsible for it, the way the become responsible for it, not through their minds, but through their hearts.

Yet at times Alarcón's writing would benefit from more control and restraint, reigned in the stories would be ever more forceful. The same images reemerge throughout the book: the killing of dogs, death by landslide, and the prominence of clowns. Such singular images, when used repeatedly raise the question of the author's creative haste. While each story is a distinct entity, the lines become blurred when distinguishing moments run together, such as with the thrice-mentioned death by landslide (by way of three different stories). The absurdity of a clown on stilts leading a pack of shoeshine boys loses its novelty when clowns reappear in another story at a funeral -- for parents who were killed by a landslide. The practice stales quickly, but fortunately the most irritating repetitions are limited.

The revolutionary heart, truly the essence of the Lima depicted within these pages, never grows old. The combatively minded "War by Candlelight" spawns two decades, jumping erratically in time between portraits of Fernando, a man torn from his family by his allegiance to an unnamed communist guerilla movement that one assumes is the Sendero Luminoso. The flashes of Fernando's life are bold: fighting in the forest in the midst of warfare, studying at the university where he first encounters communist ideology, making promises he knows he'll never keep to his girlfriend, Maruja. Together, the fragmented scenes register the toll of sacrifice demanded by his rabid politics. Illuminated moments speak from the darkness of 20 years, answering how a sensitive boy grows into a warrior, how a man who has a heart for his people abandons his family.

Other stories fall flat. "Third Avenue Suicide," one of the few set in New York City, depicts the dissolution of the relationship between David and Reena, two young lovers who recently moved in together. Reena's parents are conservative Indians who wouldn't approve if they knew she was dating David. This is a non-issue, though, until Reena falls ill. Slowly but surely David's forced out of his living space while Reena's mother comes more frequently to care for her daughter. At odd moments the dialogue fumbles and at others the story drowns in stasis. From the beginning we know that David will be dumped. His leaving is a cadence that leads to the realization of the futility of returning home. In its inwardness, the story implodes upon itself.

The shortcomings that temper Alarcón's excellence are forgivable, especially when considering that this is his first book. The breadth of his stories, his incisive writing, his ability to capture the chaotic energy of a city on the page merit his rise into the media-anointed realm of the young and the talented. And here Alarcón emerges with his feet firmly planted. Most inspiring is the promise that he has yet to hit his stride, that he will continue to shower us with frenzied, wonderful stories in the years to come.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image