Rodrigo, the narrator of much of Daniel Saldaña Paris’ novel “Among Strange Victims,” can be a frustrating character to follow, but that’s the point. While some protagonists embrace their destiny at the center of a narrative, Rodrigo is a much more passive figure, content to go along with the sometimes bizarre pathways down which life takes him. “My life is a repetition of one Saturday after another,” he says early in the novel, and that sense of routine and monotony is conveyed by Saldaña Paris in a low-key comic style — think Jim Jarmusch’s mid-1980s filmography.
Initially, not a lot happens, but the odd events and quirks stand out even more — Rodrigo’s obsessions with the vacant lot near his apartment, for instance. He works a low-level writing job at a museum, and his lack of ambition is apparent to the reader and to the characters around him. Due to a misunderstanding, he becomes engaged to his co-worker Cecilia, and embarks upon married life with as much motivation as he had previously applied to his bachelorhood.
About a quarter of the way into the novel, Rodrigo awakens after what may have been an assault and discovers a bizarre sight in his apartment. From there, the novel shifts into a different gear: Juxtaposed with Rodrigo’s story is that of Marcelo Valente, a Spanish academic who travels to Mexico, as well as the subject of Marcelo’s interest, a writer named Richard Foret who lived a century earlier.
Marcelo is dynamic where Rodrigo is a slacker; that Foret’s narrative includes a few references to Marcel Duchamp is one indication that the overall narrative of “Among Strange Victims” might be heading to a more surreal place. Some of the allusions made when describing Foret’s writing suggest the literary terrain into which Saldaña Paris has entered with his own novel.
“This isn’t a Pessoa on amphetamines,” goes one passage, alluding to the author of “The Book of Disquiet,” a work of fiction that turns idle thoughts, inertia and boredom into a uniquely compelling book. Alternately: Rodrigo’s malaise is a narrative decision — and one that ultimately works.
While there’s definitely something of a plot happening in “Among Strange Victims,” much of the novel’s charm comes from its ability to elude convention. For all of its intentional progression in fits and starts, eventually Rodrigo’s narrative finds a decidedly peculiar direction, ending on a note that’s at once transcendent, melancholy, juvenile and mysterious.
Although its stylized narrative can be an acquired taste, “Among Strange Victims” is deceptively affecting. Its protagonist may lack direction, but the book has a fine sense of where it’s going.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.
Among Strange Victims
By: Daniel Saldana Paris, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 218 pages, $16.95.