While it can be exciting to encounter confused, psychotic or delirious characters on the page, few things in fiction are as deadly-boring as the wacky first-person narration of a crazy person. All this is to say that it’s the rare novel (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Catcher in the Rye, arguably) that can get away with using an angst-y or mad protagonist and not completely fall into ridiculous hyperbole. That said, the dense syntax and unconventional paragraphing of Laura Restrepo’s Delirium at first seems an example of imitative fallacy. One wonders if Restrepo’s long paragraphs perhaps wrongly combine description, dialogue, summarized speech and flashback in order to mimic the anxiety of her protagonist, Aguilar, or worse, the madness of Aguilar’s wife, Agustina.
Much to Restrepo’s credit, the farther down this rabbit hole (four interweaving lines of narration) one goes, the more apparent it becomes that while Delirium is occasionally syntactically difficult and dense, it’s also an incredibly controlled story that unfolds methodically and delicately.
A mystery set in Pablo Escobar’s Colombia, the novel follows Aguilar as he returns to Bogotá after a weekend trip to find his wife totally unhinged, cowering behind a desk in a hotel suite. As Aguilar attempts to find out what happened to his young wife, he learns disturbing and painful facts of her past. The ensuing depictions of the upper echelon of Colombian society, the drug trade, and the seemingly haunted population of a country in almost constant turmoil are both troubling and fascinating.
Cleverly, Restrepo begins her book with an epigram from Gore Vidal, where he puts forth Henry James’ advice that writers not employ mad characters. Their lack of moral responsibility, posits James, leaves a writer with no real tale to tell, no weighty moral foundation upon which to build a worthwhile and compelling story. Restrepo subverts this notion, exploring Agustina’s madness in exacting, ugly detail, not as a way to examine or pass judgment on Agustina herself, but as a way to examine the moral compunctions of a nation haunted by its colonial past, the drug trade, and extreme poverty.