Lost Children Archive II

lost-children-archiveJust over halfway through Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, the book takes a sudden turn as the narrative switches from the point of view of the mother to that of her ten-year-old stepson. “What else do you see, Ground Control?” the mother has just asked (186), alluding to one of the key tracks on their shared road-trip playlist, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” a song that is of course very much about alienation (becoming-alien) and (mis)communication. “Calling Major Tom,” the boy seems to respond. “This is Ground Control. You copy me, Major Tom?” (191). But it soon becomes clear that this is not exactly a response to the mother’s question (though it is not exactly not a response, either), for as well as a new narrator we also have a new addressee: “This is the story of us, and of the lost children, from beginning to end, and I’m going to tell it to you, Memphis” (191). Memphis is the boy’s (step)sister, who has taken on that name as part of a round of collective familial renaming: “I’ll be Memphis. Just Memphis” (107). The boy, meanwhile, has adopted the name “Swift Feather.” And so, as the children start to inhabit and speak from these new identities, the book’s tone also changes, from the (over?) analytical realism of the mother’s narration to something more like myth, an epic (albeit in miniature) reminiscent of a classic children’s tale such as Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. Indeed, much like Huck, Swift Feather and Memphis are about to “light out for the territory ahead of the rest.”

From the back of the car, the boy and his sister have been listening to their parents’ stories–both the stories directed at them, and others that they were not necessarily intended to overhear, as well as still others that perhaps the parents did not even know they were telling. Sometimes the girl falls asleep; sometimes the boy has been pretending to do the same. And through it all the children have been coming up with their own stories, many of which are echoes or slightly distorted versions of and responses to the narratives that the adults have been providing them. It is these echoes that come to the fore now, as the boy decides to take his sister in hand so that the two of them can look for themselves for the “lost children,” the refugee sisters (and others like them) crossing the border from Mexico, that the mother has been talking and worrying about all this time. Of course, as the kids set off, first ransacking their mother’s “archive” (a box in the back of the car) to take a map, a sound recorder, and her copy of the book she has been reading, Elegies for Lost Children, “Swift Arrow” and “Memphis” also join the ranks of the lost. Indeed, the boy will come to realize that his plan that they should look “for themselves” (on their own account) will overlap with a broader project, forced upon them, to look “for themselves” in the sense of trying to figure out how the two of them fit in to the wider world of which they are necessarily a part.

So Swift Feather and Memphis embark on their own trek, which is itself an echo both of their parents’ expedition and of the arduous journey undergone by the Central American migrants whom they are hoping to contact. There is something childishly narcissistic about this endeavor, as their aim is in part to reclaim the attention of their mother and father: “if we too were lost children,” the boy imagines, “we would have to be found again. Ma and Pa would have to find us” (238). But at the same time they are exposing themselves to many of the same kinds of dangers faced by refugee children; they shed the creature comforts and protection of the family unit and their relative privilege to ride a train much like the Bestia and to hike through the desert with minimal food or water. They start to inhabit a struggle for survival that is otherwise barely unimaginable. And this too, perhaps, explain why here the novel becomes almost dreamlike, even as it narrates an encounter with something like the real of danger and deprivation.

Everything comes to a climax (if not a resolution) in an extraordinary passage of almost twenty pages that is one interrupted sentence in which the point of view regularly switches between the brother and sister on the one hand, and the bedraggled migrants (now reduced to a small group of four) on the other who walk almost literally out of the pages of the Elegies for Lost Children. Their disparate stories finally if briefly coincide, at an abandoned goods train whose open sliding doors “looked like a window I was looking through from our side of the desert to the other side,” where the boy hears a sound that “got louder and louder so I knew it wasn’t an echo but a real sound,” and where he throws a rock only to find

a rock come flying back at us, [. . .] a real rock that the boy and his sister would have mistaken for an echo, confused as they were about cause and effect as the normal link between events, were it not for the fact that the rock thrown back at them hits the boy on his shoulder, so very real, concrete, and painful [. . .] who’s there I said, who’s there he says, and hearing the sound of his voice, the four children look at each other in relief, because it is a real voice, finally, clearly not a lost desert echo, not a sound-mirage like the ones that had been following them all along (330)

And in the transition from “I said” to “he says,” the change in point of view is marked by the shift in pronouns, but a common ground is also established precisely as “I” becomes “he,” as first person becomes third person, as a point of identification is established that renders the echo tangible and material without depriving it of any of its mythic qualities.

It is as though Luiselli were saying that it is only by treating such stories with the seriousness and naiveté, the trusting literalness, with which children treat the tales they are told, that we can establish some kind of connection with the unbearable and unimaginable horrors of the migrant experience. Her previous book, Tell Me How It Ends, which is also about Central American child migrants, never quite loses the adult point of view and insists that “the stories told in this essay are true” (107), adding footnotes to document each of its accusations about the injustices of the US judicial system that processes asylum claims. Lost Children Archive, by contrast, whose “Notes on Sources” list instead the series of literary works (from Pound’s Cantos to Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo), achieves, or comes close to achieving, the much more difficult task of imprinting on us the sense that the stories it tells and the voices it conjures up are real.

The People of Paper

plascencia_people-of-paperSalvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper portrays the revolt of its characters (people, literally, of paper) against the author who has created them. The author, who himself takes on the character of an (almost) all-seeing “Saturn” is described as a “tyrant, commanding the story where he wants it to go. That is why they fight against him, why they hide under lead [which apparently protects the characters from his authorial gaze] and try to push him to the margins” (228). And yet at the point at which Saturn actually comes into view, he seems to be about as tyrannous as the Wizard of Oz after Toto opens up a curtain in the Emerald Palace to reveal merely a middle-aged “humbug” and “a very bad wizard.” In Plascencia’s novel it is a carnation-picker by the name of Smiley who “saw[s] through the layers of newspaper and glue” that protect Saturn’s house and comes across an author who is “no longer in control. [. . .] I found him asleep, sprawled and naked, laying on his stomach, [. . .] the linens and towels unfolded and dirty, books stacked in badly planned towers [. . .]. And paper, unbound and scattered everywhere” (103-4). Unlike the other characters, Smiley had been less keen to enlist in the war against his creator, wondering “Could he not be protecting us?” (95). Once exposed, however, it appears that the mighty Saturn can scarcely look after himself, let alone anyone else.

Yet the real disappointment in Smiley’s encounter with Saturn is the discovery that not only is he neither threatening nor protecting his characters; it seems he is unable even to keep track of them all. “Smiley?” he asks bewilderedly. And perceiving the dismay that this failure to recognize his own creation engenders, he goes on to explain that “there are many characters, plots, and devices, and in the jumble of things sometimes minor characters are forgotten, even by the author” (105). Saturn/Plascencia has been caught up in his own plot, which runs parallel to that of the carnation pickers, and involves a woman who has left him for another man, a woman to whom the novel is apparently dedicated (“To Liz, who taught me that we are all of paper”), and who has her own concerns about what its author is writing: “You need to remember that I exist beyond the pages of this book. [. . .] Sal, if you love me, please leave me out of this story. Start this book over, without me” (138). Plascencia seems to be besieged on all sides: both by the characters that he has imagined, who live and die (and in at least one case are swiftly resurrected) as a function of this story that he has dreamed up; and also by other characters that are all too real, over whom he has no control, and against whom the best he can manage is rather petty revenge, for instance by scratching out the name of Liz’s new lover whenever it appears. Though he does indeed start the book over, as a new title page appears in the wake of Liz’s protests, with the dedication merely “Para mi papa, mama, y hermana” (143; this is after all a Chicano text that is also about border-crossings as well as being a parody of urban gang life), yet he tries to have it both ways, as the original dedication still stands. Liz is, and is not, the novel’s dedicatee. No wonder Saturn has trouble keeping tabs on everything.

Saturn’s problem is to some extent also the reader’s. There is a lot going on in this novel: many plots and sub-plots and indeed innumerable minor characters, including a Merced, a Little Merced, and a Merced de Papel, as well as carnation pickers, Burn Collectors, mechanics, mechanical tortoises, a Mexican wrestler, a beekeeper, a Cardinal, a curandero, a “Baby Nostradamus” whose thoughts are inscrutably hidden by blocks of ink, Rita Hayworth, and even another ex-girlfriend for Saturn/Plascencia. And ultimately perhaps we suffer the same fate as Saturn as he is depicted by his creation, Smiley: we find it hard to care too much about any of them. Least of all, Saturn himself, who comes off as at best a little pathetic, and at worst self-obsessed, spoiled, sexist, and vindictive. (“Cunt” is his one-word retort to Liz’s plea to leave her out of it [139].)

Of course, especially in a self-reflexive and metafictional text such as this one, Plascencia’s defence would be that his unlikeable self-portrait in the novel is indeed precisely that: a portrait, an unreliable representation, a performance, a mask whereby we come to see that “Plascencia” the author is as fictive a character as Smiley or Little Merced. We have no reason to believe that “Liz” actually exists (in any case, it is Plascencia who has come up with the lines he ascribes to her), and so no basis to credit the “sadness” that we are told “circulate[s] through Saturn, clogging capillaries and inflaming his lymph nodes” (242). The author is as much a creature of paper as any of his creations, and as such in fact has no capillaries or lymph nodes. But this recognition hardly prompts us to care any more. Indeed, quite the opposite. And however much the novel reminds us that paper can cut, and that people of paper can wound and affect us equally if not more than “real” people can, the fact that this book illustrates that point with descriptions of men whose tongues are lacerated thanks to cunnilingus with the origami woman Merced de Papel leaves me, at least, unmoved.