The danger of turning real people's suffering into art is that the act of aestheticizing pain can be an end in itself. If we read about someone's troubles and feel bad, it's easy to feel like we've done our part, when we've really done nothing at all.
That's the dilemma that Daniel Alarcón's debut novel Lost City Radio describes—and inadvertently recreates. Set in an unnamed war-torn South American country in some vague near future, Lost City Radio follows massively popular radio personality Norma, who hosts a weekly show dedicated to helping people find the loved ones they lost touch with during the recent civil strife. Because Norma's show is sponsored—and heavily censored—by the people responsible for tearing her country apart, she never does more than give her listeners the illusion of healing. That is, until she's assigned to report on the plight of a poor boy from a remote village, and his story of abandonment intersects with the past of Norma's long-gone, possibly revolutionary husband.
Alarcón creates intentional echoes of George Orwell's 1984, describing how governments in transition rewrite their own history every day, and how they depersonalize their victims by stripping them of their names and reducing them to numbers. But while the situation is fantastical, Alarcón's style is plain and explanatory. Lost City Radio frequently breaks for long, tense rambles through the rubble of bombed-out neighborhoods, which read like the prose equivalent of the tracking shots in Children Of Men. At the same time, the lengthy scene-setting passages can be hard to follow, in part because it's difficult to know how much of what Alarcón describes is wholly invented, and how much reflects the current reality of rural South America.
This confusion may be intentional, just as Alarcón may intend for his characters' desperation and fear to become increasingly numbing as their story plays out. That doesn't change the fact that for every chilling observation about how people adjust to a life in constant turmoil, Lost City Radio pushes readers to adjust too, until we're less anxious and more annoyed.