According to the Q&A with Daniel Alarcón, this is an outtake from a novel the author is working on, but it seems to work as a story. I like Alarcón’s work, and this story is no exception. The title gives us the story’s theme: second lives. The narrator’s parents were in school in the US when their son Francisco was born, but they had to return their country, where the situation was tolerable for some time but then deteriorated. Because Francisco had a US passport, they could send him the States, which they did when he was 18 and their lives were steadily getting worse.
Meanwhile the neighbors are going through a change—the husband has an affair and leaves, which embitters the wife—and the narrator’s parents work at getting permission to emigrate to America. And the narrator, whose name is Nelson, lives a sort of imaginary life as his brother travels across the US.
The story works thematically. What’s most appealing, though, is Nelson—a typical boy who is struggling to learn how the world works by observing the people around him—the neighbor and their affair, his parents and their political struggles, his brother and his letters from America. All of which contributes to the man he’s going to become—his own second life.
August 16 & 23: “Second Lives” by Daniel Alarcón
>My usual feeling when reading Alarcón is that he has talent and craft, but that I want to see what he could do with less "exotic" settings. I say this because the exotic backdrop in his work often becomes a proxy for plot and other more compelling elements. Regrettably, I didn't think "Second Lives" was an exception.
There's a good scene, just like there was a good scene in "The Idiot President" (also starring Nelson). The scene I liked was the one that involved Luz, Nelson's neighbor. Nelson's mother hears Luz is going on a trip to the States, and brings a gift she intends to send to her own son through Luz. (Her son, Francisco, lives in Alabama.) Luz takes the gift and callously tears it open, while saying that people can't be trusted anymore, and that maybe Nelson's mother meant to use Luz as a means to smuggle drugs into the States.
That was a forceful scene. But it has so very little do to with the rest of the story that it felt smuggled into the piece. This happened with the story's other elements, as well. The second-livish urge to move to the States, which gave the story its title, only shows up three columns (a little over a page) shy of the end.
This is probably because the story is an excerpt (or something like it). Still, a stronger plot was called for. All the strength comes from the crumbling, "shuddering city" in which strikes turn into riots turn into a police state turn into unemployment and hunger. But that's just the background. I kept wanting the foreground to become compelling.
What I just said about the appeal of the foreign and the exotic reminded me of a recent piece in the London Review of Books, on "programme fiction" in the last half century. It was published here. I may be overreaching by saying this, but since you have written quite interestingly on MFAs before, Clifford, it would be great to see a comment of yours on that article by Batuman.