Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Book review: Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli (2019)

This book is an artefact that can serve as evidence of the problem of political polarisation in America. It’s fiction but it is strongly informed by the author’s own experiences in real life; so, autofiction. It’s more like a series of blogposts than a novel, however, and the story takes the form of a road trip a family makes from New York to New Mexico one year in the post-Trump era. The weather is warm and they drive in their car – mother and daughter with the woman’s husband and his son; a family – for about three weeks to get to their destination. The man has a grant to document in sound the lost civilisation of the Apaches, and the woman has to return with her daughter to New York to document that plight of refugees from South and Central America who have been caught up in the justice system. She is a radio journalist.

She is also fiercely liberal (in the US sense of the word, meaning “progressive”) in her politics, as is the author (the two people being, in a practical sense, almost identical), but the author, who is Mexican and who lives in the US, seems to be oblivious to the lack of insight her creation evinces, the glaring holes in her thinking. The woman in the book is so focused on the lives of refugees that she misses out on seeing the value in the lives of everyday Americans. She has no idea about agriculture but has strong opinions about it. She never once asks a question about why all these people are fleeing their countries of birth – the family even listens to an audiobook of William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ while driving, so there are plenty of opportunities to open a debate of that nature – but everything seems to be the fault of what her husband, from his studies into indigenous Americans, calls “white-eyes”.

There is a potentially fruitful meditation at one point on the nature of youth (something I had also observed, and have written about before). But the correlate of her female character’s thought – that people change as they grow – seems to have gone right over Luiselli’s head. Perhaps seeing the boundaries between people is something that older people are better at doing. Better at compartmentalising their lives. Better at being organised. Better at surviving. Do older people have nothing at all to offer?

The problem with the book goes deeper than this, though. Luiselli also, at an even earlier point in the book, formulates a critique of politically engaged fiction – writing that serves a utilitarian purpose – and dismisses it as being, usually, bad art, but then quite unironically produces exactly that.

There is a strange exceptionalism evident as well, an idea that the true inheritors of the legacy of the Founding Fathers are progressives like Luiselli, rather than people who live in rural America and vote Republican. This kind of chauvinism is odd and is, I think, particular to the US; you don’t find the same kind of thing happening in a country like Australia. In the US, it seems, people compete for a label proclaiming authenticity on the basis of their identity and the political party they support.

I didn’t finish this book; I got to the beginning of the second section – where the author starts using the character of the man’s son to focalise the narrative – and gave up, frustrated. I had wanted to find out what happened to the woman’s relationship with her husband as this seemed to be something that hung in the balance, but the effort required to wade through another hundred pages – or however long that part of the book is, I don’t know as Kindle had decided to stop displaying progress markers – in order to reach the end, was beyond my capacity to bear discomfort. My brain had started to object to the particular point of view the author seems to be living with and that, through her book, I was inflicting on myself.

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