My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Intellectuals played at crusaders and revolutionaries only to discover they were still patricians and liberals. […] “Liberalism” seems a vast, obscure, swampy territory one never emerges from, no matter how one tries—and perhaps one never should.
—Susan Sontag, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, 5/16/75
But we’ll get to politics later. First, novels: what are they for? what do they do? Among the merits of Valeria Luiselli’s new novel, her first written originally in English, is that it recapitulates the history of the form.
Just as on the road from zygote to person we become tadpoles and salamanders and mice and piglets, so in Luiselli’s mobile archive you find all of literary history—though not arranged in progressive order—from Sebald’s and Knausgaard’s 21st-century autofiction to Ondaatje’s and McCarthy’s late-20th-century pluralist postmodernism to Woolf’s and Conrad’s early 20th-century modernist symbolism to 19th-century moral exhortation à la (albeit unmentioned) Harriet Beecher Stowe, with stops on the way for the perennial grit and dissent of Kerouac and Bolaño, the écriture féminine of Duras and (again) Woolf—all in all, a picaresque itinerary from Cervantes to Rulfo to The Road. And as the novel has borders more porous than the other, older literary forms, as it is the form without a classicism, so poets, essayists, and diarists all also appear: Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, Pound, Rilke, Anzaldúa, and, yes, Sontag. Did you forget about Lord of the Flies since you read it in high school? Luiselli didn’t: she doesn’t forget anything.
What, then, is the story she has to summon the whole history of modern literature from Don Quixote forward to tell, why this most bookish séance in a haunted moving archive for what might have been—or even should have been—a politically didactic novel?
Readers of Luiselli’s first novel, Faces in the Crowd, will encounter in Lost Children Archive an expansion and recombination of the earlier book’s same essential elements: the text divided between a female and a male narrator, the ghost as signifiers of personal and cultural memory, the travails of the mother as artist or artist as mother, the weight of literary tradition upon the contemporary writer, the political and cultural imbalance between the U.S. and Mexico, the corresponding temptations of exoticism, and above all the Möbius-strip structure wherein past and present, reality and fantasy, are revealed as indisseverable or even indistinguishable from one another.
What intervenes between the two texts, what necessitates the new and much longer novel’s enlargement of the earlier, is the urgency of a political crisis and Luiselli’s own participation in it: her work as a translator for Latin American children in New York immigration courts has brought this poetic novelist, who seemed to begin as a somewhat aloof neo-modernist aesthete, into contact with a politically pressing humanitarian disaster and has added a desperate new relevance to her first novel’s themes of maternity and Mexico.
But Valeria Luiselli is not Harriet Beecher Stowe, and it’s not 1852, and no new Uncle Tom’s Cabin will solve the migrant crisis in favor of the migrants. The novel may have begun as a popular political form, but it’s something else now—something not less worthwhile for being unable to impel the public to action, if that is even ever a real solution to any problem.
Lost Children Archive is a road novel. It’s about a blended family (none of the members are named) headed from New York to the Southwest. The parents are sound artists—they met while working on a project to record the voices of New York City—and they have taken their children on the road because the father is beginning a new, somewhat shadowy project devoted to the Apaches (they were “the last free peoples on the American continent, the last to surrender”) and because the mother hopes she may be able to assist a friend to find her children who have been detained while crossing into the U.S. Rounding out the family are the man’s 10-year-old son and the woman’s five-year-old daughter, whose authenticity of voice and behavior, whose endearing rather than cloying precocity, is the glory of this novel in its mimetic mode.
Much of Lost Children Archive is simply the record of their journey, initially narrated by the mother, with suspense provided first by the presentiment that her marriage is at its end, and then by the children’s undertaking their own independent voyage, now narrated by the son, across the desert to find or become the titular “lost children” (encompassing both contemporary Central American migrants and the vanquished Apache).
But Lost Children Archive is more than mimesis and journey. Given Luiselli’s modernist preoccupations, it also aspires to be an all-encompassing record and system of correspondences, adding history to poetry to myth. Luiselli structures the novel according to the contents of the boxes the family carries with them, loaded with books, information, and eventually the Polaroid photographs mother and son take along the way.
This historical and literary cargo gives Lost Children Archive its grounding in a tradition it revises and augments without overthrowing. A fictional novel within the novel, Elegies for Lost Children by Ella Camposanto (an allusion to peregrinating Sebald, whose haunting presence goes superstitiously unnamed in this photographic and funereal novel), is built on a structure of words borrowed from Pound, Eliot, Rulfo, Conrad, and more as it narrates migrant children’s northward journey into the American waste land’s heart of light.
When the novel’s “real” children meet its “fictional” children (who are in turn representatives of the “real” Central American migrant children) in the spectacular, hallucinatory, 20-page-long-sentence climax of Lost Children Archive, Luiselli makes the 21st century’s neomodernist riposte to 20th-century postmodernism. If the pomos insisted that everything is fake, a copy without an original, the neos reply that in fact everything is real, that even the fictive and discursive have affective weight and palpable effect, while real life, striated with fiction and discourse, often feels more ghostly than our imaginings but is no less existent for that.
This sense of total reality is what I referred to as Luiselli’s Möbius-strip structure from Faces in the Crowd, reprised for Lost Children Archive: she reveals fiction as real, reality as fictional, ghosts as alive, the living as dead—all in the service of recreating the world as a whole, a unity, a mysterious and only half intelligible topology of symbols and correspondences containing the history of literature within itself, like those cyclopedic anatomies and monuments created by the great modernists our author, like Sontag before her, is so clearly moved and inspired by.
So I return to Sontag and politics: because what isn’t clear at all is whether such modernist masterpieces help anyone, certainly not migrant children in a contemporary political dilemma. And some have claimed that modernist anatomies and monuments are themselves adjuncts or corollaries of the more mundane global mapping inflicted by the very imperialists who produced the ongoing crisis of inequality and oppression in our world. Luiselli understands this problem. Her first narrator, the mother, reflects on it at length as she contemplates her sonic art project about the migrant children that is this novel’s own in-text surrogate:
Political concern: How can a radio documentary be useful in helping more undocumented children find asylum? Aesthetic problem: On the other hand, why should a sound piece, or any other form of storytelling, for that matter, be a means to a specific end? I should know, by now, that instrumentalism, applied to any art form, is a way of guaranteeing really shitty results: light pedagogic material, moralistic young-adult novels, boring art in general. Professional hesitance: But then again, isn’t art for art’s sake so often an absolutely ridiculous display of intellectual arrogance? Ethical concern: And why would I even think that I can or should make art with someone else’s suffering? Pragmatic concern: Shouldn’t I simply document, like the serious journalist I was when I first started working in radio and sound production? Realistic concern: Maybe it is better to keep the children’s stories as far away from the media as possible, anyway, because the more attention a potentially controversial issue receives in the media, the more susceptible it is to being politicized, and in these times, a politicized issue is no longer a matter that urgently calls for a committed debate in the public arena but rather a bargaining chip that parties use frivolously in order to move their own agendas forward. Constant concerns: Cultural appropriation, pissing all over someone else’s toilet seat, who am I to tell this story, micromanaging identity politics, heavy-handedness, am I too angry, am I mentally colonized by Western-Saxon-white categories, what’s the correct use of personal pronouns, go light on the adjectives, and oh, who gives a fuck how very whimsical phrasal verbs are?
Autonomous or didactic art? the narrator asks herself. And there are passages of straightforward didacticism in the novel, exhortations to the reader that Dickens and Stowe would recognize, along with some scenic satire of white America’s dangerous benightedness:
No one thinks of the children arriving here now as refugees of a hemispheric war that extends, at least, from these very mountains, down across the country into the southern US and northern Mexico deserts, sweeping across the Mexican sierras, forests, and southern rain forests into Guatemala, into El Salvador, and all the way to the Celaque Mountains in Honduras. No one thinks of those children as consequences of a historical war that goes back decades. Everyone keeps asking: Which war, where? Why are they here? Why did they come to the United States? What will we do with them? No one is asking: Why did they flee their homes?
None of this, neither the self-interrogation nor the didacticism, has satisfied or will satisfy literary liberalism’s radical critics (a category that includes Sontag in the late 1960s, myself in the mid 2000s, and probably Luiselli herself at various points in the composition of this novel).
Social media can be more revealing than mainstream criticism. Commentators judge Luiselli’s universalist gesture of allying the novel’s child characters to Apache warriors and migrant children as an appropriation, and further take the book’s motif of defeated Apache political sovereignty to be an instance of “the disappearing Indian trope”; charging Luiselli with fictive oppression, one critic lamented that no “committee” was retained by the publishers to read Luiselli’s errant book and correct its malfeasances—which raises the question of why committees of public safety, boards of responsible sociologists and psychologists, don’t simply write all novels from now on to avoid oppressive error. (Anyway, such critics do neglect, I think, the novel’s political subtlety, its delicate Morrisonian withholding, around the family’s own ethnicity, racialization, or immigration.)
But I threaten to wax polemical; Luiselli’s first narrator, again the mother, wanes lyrically as she offers us a phenomenology of reading inspired by Sontag’s journals:
I do remember, though, when I read Sontag for the first time, just like the first time I read Hannah Arendt, Emily Dickinson, and Pascal, I kept having those sudden, subtle, and possibly microchemical raptures—little lights flickering deep inside the brain tissue—that some people experience when they finally find words for a very simple and yet till then utterly unspeakable feeling. When someone else’s words enter your consciousness like that, they become small conceptual light-marks. They’re not necessarily illuminating. A match struck alight in a dark hallway, the lit tip of a cigarette smoked in bed at midnight, embers in a dying chimney: none of these things has enough light of its own to reveal anything. Neither do anyone’s words. But sometimes a little light can make you aware of the dark, unknown space that surrounds it, of the enormous ignorance that envelops everything we think we know. And that recognition and coming to terms with darkness is more valuable than all the factual information we may ever accumulate.
This anti-insight into the impenetrable darkness of the world disclosed by great literature—later symbolized in the novel by the desert’s blinding light (“everything invisible in that light, almost as invisible as things are by night, so what was it for, all that light, for nothing”)—is one answer to the not always unpersuasive demand for absolute rectitude and its literary corollary in the political sermon.
And this answer is what Sontag means when she discloses to her journal that the artist cannot and should not escape from liberalism, since liberalism (unlike conservatism) makes a demand for justice even as it (unlike radicalism) forestalls justice’s totalization into the absolute state by also demanding a space (Sontag’s swamp, Luiselli’s desert) for the autonomous, unfinished intellect. Modernism’s labyrinthine archives, its monuments of systemic symbolic correspondence, which Luiselli so powerfully recreates for our time, is what (per Northrop Frye) liberalism gives us in place of the ideal republic that it insists must always be our goal and can never be our destination.
But archives, and novels that mimic them, have more mundane purposes and pleasures too. Early in the novel, the mother quotes her sister’s verdict on Jack Kerouac, expressed in the banal tone of post-ironic social-media anti-intellectual misandrism:
My sister, who teaches literature in Chicago, always says that Kerouac is like an enormous penis, pissing all over the USA. She thinks that his syntax reads like he’s marking his territory, claiming inches by slamming verbs into sentences, filling up all silences.
Yet Luiselli redeems this offensively phallo-urological image at the end of the novel, when the heroic son takes over the narrative and reports of his own desert micturition that he intends it not as land-grab but as tribute and commemoration:
And these [Apache] names I remembered every time I peed out in the open like a wild beast. I remembered their names and imagined they were coming out of me, and I tried to write their initials in the dust, different ones each time, so I wouldn’t ever forget their names and so that the ground would always remember them…
The children’s foolhardy sublime heroism that brings the novel to its climax—enacted because they haven’t read Sontag’s liberal cautions yet, even if they have read William Golding and “Ella Camposanto”—justifies the mother’s earlier decision not to scold them for the back-seat games they play in which they act out the plight of the Apaches and of the migrant children. Should she chastise them for irreverence, for cultural appropriation? No—
I want to tell them to stop playing this game. Tell them that their game is irresponsible and even dangerous. But I find no strong arguments, no solid reasons to build a dike around their imagination. Maybe any understanding, especially historical understanding, requires some kind of reenactment of the past, in its small, outward-branching, and often terrifying possibilities.
A modest ars poetica for a novel heartening in its wonderfully immodest ambitions. There is much in Lost Children Archive, as in the modernist works it cites, that I don’t quite understand (it conjures a fragmentary hemispheric history it leaves the reader to assemble, and the Derridean archival theories to which it alludes have always been beyond me). There is much in it I could criticize (the husband as a character is an almost total blank, possibly on purpose, but to the novel’s detriment; and is a novel-within-a-novel, however thematically justified or well-written, ever really a good idea?).
Yet as James Wood once complained of Underworld, a long novel washes away mere criticism. Lost Children Archive, like DeLillo’s masterpiece, is so profligate that you can refuse or even prove unworthy of any number of its gifts and still come away with your mind full. It is a novel that reinvents itself and its form from page to page, a mental picaresque that never settles, and I finished it not only pleasantly exhausted by the journey but relieved that someone of my generation is writing fiction on this level—is still so committed to making it new.