The King is Always Above the People: another collection of stories I wanted to love and did not. I keep reading new story collections, hoping I’ll find one to love, but the truth is, I think it’s one hundred times harder to write a good collection of stories than it is to write a good novel. The thing is, I love short stories. Some of my favorite works of fiction are short stories. “A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri is a masterwork of fiction. So is Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”. But whole collections of brilliant stories are hard to come by.
Though Alarcon explored interesting themes in this book–immigration, displacement, journeying, the shifting nature of home, relationships between fathers and sons–I wasn’t captivated by any of these stories. I listened to the audio, and though I liked the narration, and I often got confused, forgetting which story I was listening to and who the characters were. Perhaps it would have been better in print.
Many of these stories, to me, felt empty. The writing was clean and clear, but it never felt revelatory. The stories depicted events, but I couldn’t find the emotion underneath them. I could never quite pinpoint what they were supposed to be about, and then they’d end and I was left wondering what had just happened. The similar themes felt monotonous, so that sometimes it seemed like I was reading about the same person over and over again. Sometimes this works in a story collection, but it didn’t here. None of it felt electrifying or original.
The one story that struck me was about a man who had been Abraham Lincoln’s lover. He recounts his relationship with Lincoln, but he’s narrating from the present day. This one held my interest because it felt fresh and original, but it was too bizarre to actually work. How was a man who’d had an affair with Lincoln now living in the present day? It wasn’t explained, and so despite being an intriguing concept, I was too distracted trying to figure out what was going on to enjoy it.
In another story, there’s a whole section in which the narrator describes the events as a play. It’s a scene in which he and his father are at bar with a group of men. In my opinion, it dragged on and on. The narrator captures every minute detail of the conversation, every gesture, every piece of dialogue. It was hard to find meaning in it. This felt emblematic of Alarcon’s style–meandering, matter-of-fact, but without any underlying emotional impact.
I like to delve into the emotional lives of characters. That’s my favorite part of fiction. I enjoy subtext and subtly, but if I can’t find a way to access a character’s driving desires, I loose interest. I don’t want to have to do all the work myself. But if you enjoy fiction that leaves much of the why up to the reader, you’ll probably like this one a lot more than I did.