“In the meantime, while the story continues, the only thing to do is tell it over and over again as it develops, bifurcates, knots around itself. And it must be told, because before anything can be understood, it has to be narrated many times, in many different words and from many different angles, by many different minds.” These sentences are also from “Tell Me How It Ends,” but they could just as easily have appeared in “Lost Children Archive” (Knopf), Luiselli’s new novel, which offers a fictionalized version of the material in her previous book—the author returning, in a different mode, to the same stories, and struggling with herself and her medium even more productively than in “Tell Me How It Ends.” The shape of her 2014 journey, and a number of the details, remain unchanged. The novel is narrated by an unnamed woman, who with her unnamed husband and their two children—a five-year-old girl, who is the woman’s daughter from a previous relationship, and a ten-year-old boy, who is the husband’s son, also from a previous relationship—is driving, in the summer, from New York City to the southeast corner of Arizona. The mother and father are not writers, exactly; they are documentary makers, of a kind, and met while working on a large audio-recording project, which aimed to make a soundscape of emblematic New York noises—subways screeching, ministers preaching, cash registers shutting, playground swings swinging. In Arizona, they plan to do different, adjacent things: she will work on “a sound documentary about the children’s crisis at the border”; he intends something vaguer and more abstract: to make what he calls an “inventory of echoes” about “the ghosts of Geronimo and the last Apaches.”
The first part of Luiselli’s novel concerns the journey south, and is written diaristically. The text is divided into small sections of a few paragraphs, each with its own title (some of which recur), such as “Archive,” “Narrative Arc,” “Time Teeth,” “Foundational Myths,” and so on. Readers of contemporary autofiction will recognize the form: plot is relaxed into essay, with room for authorial digression, political and theoretical commentary, and reports on what the author has been reading, along with just enough storytelling to keep the novel moving forward.
As in the previous work, the narrator thinks hard about her project, about its possibility and its propriety: “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? . . . 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 . . . ?” Throughout the narrative, Luiselli finds analogues for her own literary processes. In a bookshop in Asheville, North Carolina, she overhears a book club discussing a work that sounds as if it might be treading on the heels of the one we are reading: “I think it’s more about the impossibility of fiction in the age of nonfiction, says a soft-spoken woman whose contribution passes unacknowledged.” A bit later, the narrator tells us that she likes the photographs of Emmet Gowin, in part because “he takes his time looking at things instead of imposing a point of view on them.” Her daughter tells her that her school has taught her to invent by drawing four squares, labelled Character, Setting, Problem, and Solution. “Bad literary education begins too early and continues way too long,” her mother thinks. The family starts listening to an audiobook of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” but the voice is merely that of “an actor acting—tries too hard, breathes too loud—instead of a person reading.”
This section of “Lost Children Archive,” like a growing number of contemporary works of fiction, evidences an impatience with traditional realist artifice and convention. Characters are nameless; dialogue is not flagged as such; dramatic “conflict” is kept to a minimum, and only faintly shaded in when it occurs; the self-reflexive narrative stops and starts, riffs and turns in on itself. But such formal radicalism is inevitably in search of its own realism. You can see why Luiselli would want this chastened, self-conscious, documentary veracity. The immediacy of the human suffering at the border, the delicacy of how to provide witness—these are good reasons to proceed with skepticism about narrative contrivances. So the novel, like Emmet Gowin’s photographs, takes its time rather than quickly imposing a point of view; unlike McCarthy’s actor, it inhabits its material naturally rather than performing it too strenuously.