Valeria Luiselli is one of the most interesting, intelligent and challenging writers of our present time. Lost Children Archive marks her first artistic failure. The novel focuses on the story of a family precariously stitched together. Over the course of a road trip through the American Southwest, they watch as the seams that hold them together are pulled out, leaving them at loose ends.

The father is a sound artist and the mother a journalist; they met while working together on a project documenting every language spoken in New York City. Now, with that project ended, they begin to negotiate their lives as a family (they each brought one child to the marriage) and as artists with different projects to pursue. The end goal of their trip is Arizona, where the father’s project on Apache history will take shape. The mother enacts her project—split between work in New York and work at the U.S.-Mexico border —in ad hoc fashion along the way.

It is impossible to talk about the outline of the story without the process that Luiselli used in forming the novel, as she structures the novel in accordance with this process. Traveling in the trunk of the family car are seven boxes, which form an overlapping archive of the work of the family and Luiselli’s work as a novelist. Made up of books, articles, musical scores, notebooks and recordings, the first five of these boxes belong to the parents. The lists that represent the contents of the boxes form Luiselli’s bibliography for the novel. The texts that informed her as she wrote the book inform the characters in her book, as well. The lists break up the narration, which, for the first half of the book, belongs to the mother.

Then, the book breaks the pattern, and begins to refract itself in sometimes interesting ways. As the mother and the son (who is not the child she brought to the marriage) watch a plane full of deported children take off from a clandestine location not far from Roswell, New Mexico, the narrator switches to the boy. The subheadings of chapters begin to repeat themselves, as variations on the themes from the first half of the book. The boy, as narrator, is precocious, silly and lyrical. Luiselli opts to magnify the sometimes jarring intelligence that a 10-year-old child can exhibit and minimize the things that can make children exasperating or, even, stupid—that is, the things that make them, believably, children. This is the child-narrator as an oracular adult—the world having not yet hammered the mystic out of him.

Over the course of the trip, the boy has been watching—taking pictures with his new Polaroid camera—and he has noticed the family coming apart. So, he hatches a plan: he and his sister will slip out one morning and take the days-long journey across the desert to Echo Canyon (a destination their father has mythologized for them) in order to bring the family back together. It is an old plot. Without giving too much away, the remaining boxes in the family’s car (one belonging to the mother, and one belonging to each of the children) continue to factor into the narrative; the mother and son trade narration back and forth; and the book climaxes in a single, lyrical sentence that lasts 20 pages.

To return to the subject of process, it is important to note the importance of intertextuality and politics to Luiselli’s body of work. Her most radical book, the novel The Story of My Teeth was originally commissioned by Galería Jumex— an exhibition space for the privately-held collection of the heir to the Jumex juice-factory empire that was housed in the center of a Jumex industrial complex—as a response to the artwork. Luiselli did not shy away from the implications of a corporate-branded art collection. As she wrote the book, she would have chapters read aloud to workers at a Jumex factory who would subsequently record their conversations about and critiques of the work. These conversations would then shape the work moving forward. The result is a strange, daring and collaborative novel (the collaboration even extended to her translator, who contributed a chapter to the English edition of the book). The book probed the troubling relationship between art and capital while modeling what an alliance between artists and workers might look like.

Lost Children Archive contains a similarly sly conceit buried within its boxes: a book called Elegies for Lost Children. Unlike the other books in the boxes—by the likes of Sontag, Kerouac and Walter Benjamin—this book’s author, Ella Camposanto, is a product of Luiselli’s imagination. This fictional group of elegies—buried within the fictional mode of the novel, but disguised by real-world texts—is comprised of evocative, short passages describing the journey of a group of children to the sanctuary of a far-off city. It chronicles their journey by train and by foot and crackles with dark and violent intensity. These passages form the most compelling parts of the novel and while they were formed through elaborate literary allusions—documented in the novel’s works cited section— they are defiant examples of Luiselli’s brilliance and are wholly her own. They tantalizingly withhold plot detail (these are the only sections of the novel narrated in third-person), while imbuing the children—and the ambiguous figure who leads them—with life.

However, the novel that surrounds these meta-fictional passages is relatively lifeless. The adult characters in the novel are inert, unable to act to change their lives or the lives of those around them. Their world slips away from them slowly and quietly, like their children in the pre-dawn. The father cannot reverse the effects of colonialism, and content to record the ghosts of dead Apaches, he neglects talking to any living ones. The mother cannot save the lost children; she listens to the radio, aids as an interpreter, briefly, in legal matters and even tracks down the plane which violently displaces these children, but it is all to no effect. The children are, in fact, the only characters who exert any real narrative will.

What is the reader meant to make of these adults—self-absorbed and self-interested, but playing the parts of moral crusaders? This may be judging them too harshly. Their position in the world is much the same as many readers of contemporary fiction: uncomfortable, but better than the alternatives. In the end, the novel fails because there is no reason to care about or engage with the central characters. Put in the context of violent oppression both historical and absolutely contemporary, they fade into irrelevance. The parents are empty, and the children are so full, so absurdly literary in comparison that they become ethereal and unreal, making a fantasy land of hardship.

Luiselli is engaging with the question of whose stories get to be told and who gets to tell these stories in the current literary landscape. A thorny question, to be sure, but one she has already found a clever answer to. In her book Tell Me How It Ends, she uses the questions that, as a court interpreter, she asks undocumented migrant children facing deportation as a jumping-off point in order to relay the stories these children tell her. The book can work as a companion piece to the novel—even down to the family road trip Luiselli herself took—but by pairing them, the novel’s weaknesses become even more apparent. In Lost Children Archive, the stories of the lost children go mostly untold (or told through distant intermediaries) and, as a result, they are sublimated to the story of a petit bourgeois family trying to stay together. If the family’s story appears urgent, it is largely due to the persistent static of migrant crisis that hums in the background more than the inevitable dissolution of this one family.

It is no wonder, then, that the book has received widespread praise since its publication. It has the distinct effect of making the reader—like the central characters of the novel—feel that their work (reading the novel) is important and necessary without the work doing much of anything to reverse the injustice from which it derives its moral weight, which makes this book pale in comparison to  to the vitally important and weighty Tell Me How It Ends and The Story of My Teeth.

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