“Lost Children Archive,” the latest novel from Valeria Luiselli, is as timely as it is challenging. It confronts the current American political landscape even as it gauges echoes of the waning American dream.
The novel is essentially the road trip of a family of four from New York to Arizona at a time when large numbers of migrant children are looking for asylum in America as they cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
It’s a road trip that Luiselli has actually made with her own family of four, a trip she chronicles in her book “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions.” That book takes our country to task for its myriad foreign policy failures that have left families without secure homelands and insists that America accept responsibility for those displaced children.
What “Lost Children Archive” does is throw its fictional road trip of a marriage and family that are falling apart because of parental failings up against the actual “road trip” being taken by migrant children because of American political failings. That risky literary experiment is brilliantly in evidence on every page of the novel.
No members of the family are given proper names by the novel’s primary voice. “She” uses “my husband,” “the boy” for their 10-year-old son and “the girl” for their 6-year-old daughter — or she uses the occasional personal pronoun.
“She” is a beautifully realized character. There is a kind of ongoing tentativeness about her. She has attended university, “though only for a while.” She reads voraciously as if she were trying to discover who she is, who she is trying to be.
Her marriage is probably on the rocks. She admits early on that she and the husband are rather like “a couple trying to rid themselves of each other, and at the same time trying desperately to save the little tribe they have so carefully, lovingly, and painstakingly created.”
The narrator and her husband have been working on a soundscape project around New York City, “plucking, shuffling, editing sounds.” By chance one day, she asks permission to record a Mixtec woman. That woman will allow herself to be recorded if the narrator agrees to translate paperwork on behalf of the woman’s two older children, who are being held at a Texas detention center. That agreement evolves into a project for radio (think NPR, perhaps), and the narrator becomes consumed with seeing it to completion.
When the soundscape project eventually concludes, the narrator and the husband find themselves ill-prepared for “the part where we just lived the life we’d been making.” They leave New York, and their real adventure begins.
That road trip will involve everything from a swim in the guitar-shaped pool at a motel outside Graceland to the boy’s and girl’s desert walkabout, one that is intended to replicate the current journey of those refugee children detained at the Texas border.
The road trip will involve the husband’s obsession with the historical plight of the Apache nation, and the narrator’s obsession with the contemporary plight of the migrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border.
It will also involve taking other literary risks that are equally compelling. There are seven “boxes” of materials belonging to members of the family, boxes that are “opened” by the reader along the way to completing the novel. In those boxes are everything from project notes to photos to book lists that link historical past to contemporary climate.
There is also “Echo Canyon,” a remarkably rendered 20-page single sentence near novel’s end.
A literary experiment? To be sure. But “Lost Children Archive” is also a deeply moving examination of our current American landscape, one in which, according to Valeria Luiselli, it has become harder and harder to find any vestige of that old American Dream we continue to be taught to pursue, whatever the cost.
Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.