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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Collectors" by Daniel Alarcon

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker. You would too, if you were me...

Issue: July 29, 2013

Story: "Collectors"

Plot: Two Mexican men, from completely different walks of life, meet in the country's most infamous prison, Collectors, in the mid-80s. Rogelio is a poor, illiterate campesino turned drug courier; Henry is a playwright who wrote a politically inflammatory play called "The Idiot President," which apparently the government did not find too amusing. Despite their different backgrounds, the two bond in prison through a kind of symbiotic relationship; Rogelio helps Henry survive, Henry provides Rogelio intellectual stimulation. They perform "The Idiot President" in prison; Henry and Rogelio have a romantic relationship. Eventually Henry is released, only to find out that Rogelio and most of the prisoners he knew were killed when a massive prison riot gets quashed by the military.

Review: Yet another story from a writer due out with a second novel soon (and whose first novel Lost City Radio, I've had gathering dust on my shelf for two years). Someday when I get around to it (ha!) I'm going to tally up how many short stories come from young writers whose "second novel" is coming out soon. What is it about the NYer and "second" novelists? My guess is this: a.) if you even make it to second novel territory, then you're a proven commodity and won't be an embarrassment to the august, revered publication about which I faithfully blog, and b.) following on that logic, if your first novel was good, then your publisher has by now put some serious marketing muscle (read: $$$) behind you and therefore your agent -- who is doubtless friends with at least somebody on the NYer -- finagles you a few pages. That's my two cents worth of peanut gallery literary-world speculation. Amen. 

Anyway on to the review... 

Some short stories are like satisfying but unremarkable meals: they provide nourishment and some amount of pleasure, but ultimately you crap them out and forget all about them. Sadly, I would have to put "Collectors" into that category. In fact, I could barely even remember that I'd read this story, then I saw my issue of the NYer lying on the back of my toilet. Okay, sorry, too may toilet references for one blog post...

I can't put my finger on precisely why this story is forgettable, mind you. Alarcon manages to sort of extrude Rogelio's character very carefully and very evenly in a short amount of time. He also creates an intriguing scenario in which Henry has to cope with criminals and lower class types which he's been able to avoid throughout his entire, rarified intellectual upper-class life. One feels his anxiety as he has to fight every day to stay alive and keep his own paralyzing fear at bay.

I also find it intriguing any time fiction goes "meta," in other words, when the characters within the story engage in the act of literary production. You always have to watch this closely because it's rare that whatever work of art the characters are producing is done by accident. Either it's a reference to the production of the actual work at hand, or else it's a reference to some other societal issue. In this case it's particularly interesting from the standpoint that not only is the main character a playwright, but he gets his play produced in prison by prisoners. It's funny to note that, in the "outside world" Henry's actors don't really "get" his play but just want to act, and in prison it's much the same phenomenon. For a closer reading that, you'll have to take up where I've left off.

Another plus: the story ends on a really beautiful, bittersweet note, with Henry -- years later -- learning of the massacre of his former prison unit, and realizing that part of his life is now completely sealed in his past, with no one left alive that he knew during that time, and no one in his present life who could ever possibly understand what it was like inside prison. The story is worth reading just for that one passage.

All is well that end's well...except in fiction. I don't believe you can just jump around, do whatever you want, and then tie the work up with an emotional, yet kind of un-earned, ribbon and hope it moves people. No. In my opinion, it's the opposite: if the entire story is moving and gripping all along, it almost doesn't matter what happens in the end. Herein lies the lesson from "Collectors," I believe. 

Until next time...


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