A Circus at the Center of the World
Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 2.
Now I’ll turn from delight (over “Raymond’s Run”) to lukewarm contentedness. The story I’ll mention today is “A Circus at the Center of the World”, by Daniel Alarcón. The story was listed as part of the notable nonrequired reading of 2007 in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008, edited by Dave Eggers. “A Circus at the Center of the World” is available here, where it was published: the Winter 2007 edition of the Virginia Quarterly Review.
Alarcón has received much praise. The VQR biographical stub describes him as a native Peruvian now living in California. He was raised in Alabama, and he writes fiction in English. Alarcón was part of Granta 97: Best of Young American Novelists 2, published in 2007. He broke ground with a collection of short stories (War by Candlelight), and then moved on to a novel (City Radio). A relatively long story of his, “City of Clowns,” was published by The New Yorker back in 2003.
Enough about the author. Let’s bore into “The Circus.” The story is about a mediocre schoolteacher, Elijah Manau, stranded in a jungle town whose name is a number (1797: one figures it is a police state in which most if not all towns are numbered instead of named). He is an urbanite, and thus lacks the habits and the constitution for a jungle setting (his skin turns carbuncular, he is clearly incompetent with botany and agriculture). He likes a woman from town, the widowed mother of one of his students. That particular student becomes increasingly important as the tale progresses.
This story is structured around a sense of foreboding, which is not exactly matched by events during the narrative time of the story. This sense is propped on two sentences, the first of which is the opening sentence: “Elijah Manau was a rosy-cheeked man from the capital, and had been living in the village of 1797 for six months when the soldiers came.” The second of these sentences starts off the second section of the story: “Later, when his mother died and he left 1797, Victor would remember this day as the beginning of the town’s dissolution.” We are left with the forecast of gloomy events to come, rather than the events themselves.
There is much that is quote-unquote exotic here: a man whose arms were cut off and has to till a field regardless; wrecked roads and festering skin diseases; an ominous troop of soldiers kept more or less in check by a burly and gentlemanly (quote-unquote, again) captain. The story doesn’t exactly revel in these aspects, so it’s not over the top, like it is in so many stories I’ve read recently. The language works about fine, and the events unfold with interest. The postponement to which we are subjected is clever. The final scene, with its covert erotic component, makes us intruders into a world of barely hidden lesions and passions. Having said that, I wasn’t left overly enthusiastic. It’s worth reading, in any case. The longish title surfaces near the end of the story, apparently without much significance; it might be rewarding to prod the story more carefully to find it.