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Lost City Radio

By: Daniel Alarcón
Reviewed by: David Wyman
HarperCollins, 2007
$24.95, Paperback

Please don’t take it as a sign of disapproval when I say that this is a very weird book. Set in a mythical South American capital that bears a parallel-universe resemblance to Mexico City, Lost City Radio is part science fiction, part death-comedy political satire, and, overall, a sweeping indictment of betrayal as the central element of the human psyche all rolled into one.

Lost City Radio is not so much a novel—Alarcón’s first—as it is an allegory, a twisted Aesop’s fable with Indians and Latino beaureaucrats standing in for martyred sheep and lying crows. This is the book’s primary strength, and its primary weakness.

A tale is deep, but not broad—it grows, organically, from the storyteller’s personal outlook and personal experience. A fable is broad—it is about big issues; a fable is peopled with symbols—of ideas, of types, of archetypes—instead of fully rounded characters. A fable is about everything. It tends to be flat, and preachy.

Don’t get me wrong: the big issues explored in Lost City Radio are worth a sermon.

How can a revolution—a state of permanent emergency—go on and on, for decades? Answer: The government surreptitiously supports the guerillas—a nine-o’clock news magic-trick that misdirects the citizenry’s attention from the ruling class’s abuses, to the insurgency—which goes on and on, forever. Betrayal will out. How can betrayal—political, economic, and personal—become an accepted way of life? Answer: Since the War—“Preconflict,” “Active Conflict,” and “Postconflict”—has gone on for a decade or more, things are this way. They’ve always been this way, and they always will be. Jadedness and denial are self-supporting and self-fulfilling: Once again, betrayal will out.

The sentences and paragraphs that explore these issues are well-crafted and poetic. But the question remains: Isn’t a book about everything really about no-thing?

Not in the case of Lost City Radio. By lumping together everything—love, self-perception, society, death—and pushing it through the sieve of betrayal, Alarcón manages to betray the expectations of both fable and tale. He creates the “singular effect” praised by Edgar Allen Poe as the goal of the short story in a book-length novel that breaks all the rules.

David Wyman is a writer, actor, and historian in Birmingham.

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