“The day he found a woman hiding in his closet, Vik had dreamt about winning a Ping-Pong tournament.” This first sentence of “American Delirium” raises the novel’s implicit questions: What is life but a series of illogical juxtapositions, followed by our attempt to make sense of them? And without a guarantee of success, only small notches on a belt that goes on forever? In Argentine novelist Betina González’s unsettling, fantastical, and often hilarious English-language debut, characters in a small midwestern town find themselves facing inexplicable events they can’t entirely handle. None overly remarkable but all quite human and indelible, these figures draw us into their struggles as each tries to right an upended life.
The book quickly launches three story lines. In the first, after Vik notices small, inexplicable thefts happening in his home, he installs a security camera system; he eventually discovers that a woman with long unkempt hair and no clothing — whose sudden laugh from his closet tipped him off about her hiding place — wanders through his house when he is not there and even helps herself to his food, bed, and belongings. The next thing we learn, unrelatedly, is that deer are attacking locals, sometimes viciously; Emilia, one of the town’s older residents, finally responds by beating her antlered assailant to death with a shovel. And after that — again, no connection — we learn a young girl, Berenice, has awakened to find that her mother is the latest parent in town to go on strike, making her daughter the newest “left-behind.” Where the mother has gone is unclear, but as with the other story lines here, intense concentration on the ramifications and implications of the departure are paramount. Solving the problem? Not so much.
It’s a strange motion this book makes; you could call it meandering but that undersells how consistently riveting it is. You want to find out more about these people, their lives, their desires, and ultimately their place in the book’s small universe. And you do: One fascinating thing about this book, out of several, is the amount of detail and bearing down we find here, despite its myriad subplots; this book maintains the weight of its details, and comfortably.
As minutiae accumulate, González creates a sense of claustrophobia; you feel as if all these stories are taking place a few feet away from each other, even if the characters’ lives are largely separate. Vik observes his home invader on his phone while he’s at work as the head of animal displays at the local museum. As Vik and the woman become acquainted, even intimate, a past connection is revealed that points toward a possible conclusion. After being castigated by outraged animal-protective locals, Emilia ends up doing community service at the zoo; the indignity of the job doesn’t stop her from wearing her finest outfits as we watch her grow into her pariah status. Berenice, in trying to figure out her mother’s whereabouts, and even to search for a new parent figure, reveals facets of her childhood, and of her mother’s past as well. None of these progressions improve or change matters much at all, yet the text never ceases to be engaging, sustaining itself through its relentless interest in people’s lives and how they fit into the larger life of the town in which the novel takes place.
We are swept through the book’s explorations by its confiding, sometimes gossipy, sometimes judgmental voice, whose agency here is due in no small part to Heather Cleary’s translation. Many translations are approximations; they might delve deeply into a writer’s original language and never quite get its gist. The best and most memorable translations give the sense that the translator has literally occupied the writer’s brain. This was one of those. To call it limber is an understatement; we can practically hear a prim but also deranged voice speaking to us, like Steven Millhauser on hallucinogens.
The force driving “American Delirium” is González’s clear fascination with her fictional subjects. Her lens knows no boundaries, delving into the most minute parts of characters’ lives, from the hair in Vik’s bathtub drain to one local’s regular sex dates with her pillow. When we do finally reach a conclusion, we feel less like we have been reading a novel than like we have been listening to a symphony. We understand the novel has to end here, even if we don’t know why — and our mystification becomes one of the book’s many satisfactions.
By Betina González
Henry Holt, 224 pp., $26.99