Among Strange Victims Captures the Complex Mind of an Outsider
Daniel Saldaña Paris’s novel is picaresque of a character condemned to stasis
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From Petronius’s Encolpius in The Satyricon to the visceral realists in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, intelligent and itinerant underachievers have served as astute critics of social conventions. These picaresque outsiders were gifted with clarity unequaled by their peers, and central to their lives were questions of how one ought to live: destitute but impassioned, or safely satisfied by the mind-numbing apathy of middle-class life?
Into this mix we can now add Rodrigo, the central character of Daniel Saldaña Paris’s debut novel in English, Among Strange Victims. A smart but aimless young man, Rodrigo works as a copy editor for the director of a museum, where he fantasizes about sleeping with his coworkers and sabotaging the speeches his boss delivers to investors. He’s an anti-intellectual, distrustful of the academy, though, as the son of an academic, he can’t shake off the education impressed on him by his mother. This education serves primarily to help him rationalize his disappointing life. Speaking about his dead-end job, Rodrigo claims, “This is freedom, I say to myself: an eight-hour day that, if I so wished, could be seven, or even less. An affirmation of will, but without necessary upheavals.”
A smart but aimless young man, Rodrigo works as a copy editor for the director of a museum, where he fantasizes about sleeping with his coworkers and sabotaging the speeches his boss delivers to investors
Freedom also includes contemplating used tea bags stapled to his wall and masturbating twice on Saturday. He lives alone in a small apartment overlooking a vacant lot home to a chicken. All is well for Rodrigo, until a case of mistaken identity propels him to marry his coworker, Cecilia. Though Rodrigo could have sorted out the mistake and avoided this conjugal sentence, he instead marries Cecilia. Predictably, the marriage grows stale. And Rodrigo becomes a tragic paradox: the picaresque character condemned to stasis.
The book’s second section pivots to a Spanish academic and lothario, Marcelo, on sabbatical in Mexico to research Richard Foret and Bee Langley, two overlooked modernist writers. Marcelo’s storyline alternates with that of Foret and Langley, a more traditionally picaresque narrative where comparison’s to Bolaño feel apt. Translator Christina MacSweeney has done an excellent job bringing the intelligent vitality of Paris’s prose into English, particularly in this passage describing Foret’s relationship to his contemporaries:
In Paris he had battled, with his own guts, against the castrating intellectualism of the Apollinaires, the soulless Cubists, the Marinettis of this world. Where in the work of these people was love, the unmoving motor of all the stasis, fixed point and vertex of the actions of men of real daring? Nothing of that was left, and only the pantomime of art, and Foret shat a million times on art.
The Foret and Langley sections are some of the strongest in the book. They are paced well and compellingly played against scenes of Marcelo hunting for houses in Mexico. As his trip continues, Marcelo grows tired of Foret’s incomprehensible manifesto, Considerations. He gravitates toward the poet Langley, but soon transfers his attention to a local professor who turns out to be Rodrigo’s mother.
Translator Christina MacSweeney has done an excellent job bringing the intelligent vitality of Paris’s prose into English
Marcelo’s and Rodrigo’s storylines converge when a recently laid-off Rodrigo moves in with his mother to get away from his wife. Cecilia stays in Mexico City, effectively ending their marriage, while Rodrigo stays behind to copy-edit for a colleague of Marcelo’s. There is no colleague, no book to edit, but Marcelo vouches for Rodrigo in a quid-pro-quo. Rodrigo must participate in a drug-riddled experiment run by an aging hippie. The two fall into a “complicity hatched in lying.”
Most of the second half of the novel is spent with Rodrigo as he grows increasingly vulnerable and self-aware. Philosophizing on the loneliness of marriage — a frequent habit — he says:
[marital loneliness] is more lonely than all other forms of loneliness, than sane, effective lonelinesses: the loneliness of the desert, of the widower, the loneliness of men who live surrounded by cats; marital loneliness is, I insist, more lonely than all the above because it imposes the necessity of being other.
Though Rodrigo’s theories are astute and enjoyable, it is unfortunate that the increased attention on Marcelo and Rodrigo means that Foret and Langley fade from the novel. However, the afterimage of their relationship pervades the novel. Their disappearance heightens the stark difference between how the two artists lived and how Marcelo and Rodrigo live. The lifestyle of Foret and Langley comes to seem impossible to recreate. What remains, in place of the artistic fervor that drove the two lovers, is a kind of spiritual torpor, the intellectualized idleness and middle-class domesticity of Rodrigo and Marcelo. What has happened to the life of the artist, Among Strange Victims asks. Why do we so often build critical distances between ourselves and our lives? And how can we bridge those gaps? The answers vary. Drugs, drinking, love, art making, even reading Bolaño — though this is played for a joke — all help us live in ways that feel authentic. By the end of the book, Paris suggests that there is little to learn from the self-obsessive fray of the present, and that only a calm understanding of the past that will allow us to move forward.