Daniel Alarcón’s latest story collection, The King is Always Above the People, is a modern study of self-deception — that is, the capacity to know and to simultaneously suppress.
The male protagonists in the volume's 10 stories wander aimlessly, avoiding their past, as if terrestrially shipwrecked. They are adrift in an unnamed country that reminds me of Peru, but the specific place is besides the point. The pressing matter is the pull of our own subterfuge. These stories seem to ask in a chorus: in all the small and fragile ways in which we make believe, how are we undone by our own pretense?
It is enticing to abandon a life, to engage in reinvention, start anew. At least once in our lives we gather our things and move cities, countries, hemispheres. We try a new nickname, pick up affectations, other ways of speaking, and we pretend this newness is old, has always been there.
This book brought to mind how, a few years ago, as my heels clicked on the metal floor while getting on an underground train, I decided — I mean, I accepted — the self-assigned role come to me from the ether of newly-single woman. Entering the train had been like coming on stage. I had been married for some years, but mid-stance I mustered up the level of mysterious ennui I thought the part required. I lowered down to the seat as I thought a newly single woman might, with a lightness that might be too tender for a public place. Then, staying in character, I fished out my book. I licked my finger before turning the page (a foreign gesture). I read the sentences in the mind of a single woman, and then, after a few stops, I stood. I exited the train and it was curtain call: my role was over.
The King is Always Above the People imagines a world where the pretending doesn't come to an end. It continues. In the title story, a young man arrives to a new town, and for no obvious reason misrepresents himself as an orphan who is saving to go to college. In “The Lord Rides a Swift Cloud,” a man at the end of a long trip tires himself out from acting unlonely for strangers, and in “The Auroras” a man falls into playing house with a married woman whose husband is away.
White lies are an engine of sabotage in this collection, and they hint at dark subterranean inner landscapes. These are stories of lives beyond repair or control, where even the small deceptions seem to happen beyond the purview of the enactors. In one story, one character is advised:
The place you are born in simply the first place you flee. And then: the people you meet, the ones you fall for, and the paths you make together, the entirety of one’s life, a series of mere accidents. And these too are accidents: the creeks you stumble upon in a dense wood, the stones you gather, the number of times each skips across the bright surface of the water, and everything you feel in that moment: the graceless passage of time, the possibility of stillness.
Alarcón is a careful storyteller, and the writing in this collection is measured, beautiful, enchanting. His are worlds where things are utterly familiar and equally strange. Even stranger, as I read The King is Always Above the People on the buses and trains of San Francisco, Alarcón’s world of innocently deceptive people sublimely splashed into my reality.
One time, on the MUNI to downtown, my reading was interrupted by a woman sitting across from me telling her friend that she did not want hairy knuckles when her future husband proposed, and so she was in the habit of waxing them regularly even though she had not had a date in a long time. Some days later, on a bus to the Outer Mission, a man vociferated about a rescheduled meeting, but then his screen flashed against his cheek and I saw there was no active call underway. These performances could have easily belonged in this collection. As we give ourselves small parts, and pretend to be different in passing in the most infinitesimal ways, Alarcón reminds us, these are just performances, and as such, they are doomed to remain failed transfigurations.
The King is Always Above the People is out now. Daniel Alarcón appears in conversation with Jeff Chang at City Arts and Lectures on Jan. 23, 2018. More information here.
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