- Colonization and Displacement
400 Pages; Cloth, $27.95
Valeria Luiselli's Lost Children Archive explores displacement, family, and the cartography of parenthood in the age of ICE detention centers. Published in February 2019, the novel interlaces parental angst with contemporaneous news about the immigration crisis at the US southern border. The characters in the novel are nameless and only distinguished by their age, gender, and familial role: "boy," "girl," "mother," and "father." The mother and father set out with their two children on a cross-country road trip from New York City to Arizona. The mother is the narrator and steers the perspectives of the story world. The father drives the car. On the road, the family discovers that their middle-class lives are adjacent to the thousands of child refugees held in ICE detention centers. The family's middle-class existence merges with news about children lost in the desert; the jargon of immigration lawyers; and tales about the Apache, the last free peoples in the Americas. The children sing and play games in the backseat of their car while the parents navigate their route and internally negotiate a growing chasm between the family. The family stops at motels, bookstores, restaurants, and gas stations throughout Virginia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Texas, all while literally adding new books, stories, and news to their archive.
Lost Children Archive is divided into sections called "Boxes." There are seven "Boxes" in total. In each "Box," the reader encounters polaroids taken by the boy; drawings by the girl; maps of the Southwest; passages from books, including Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899), Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man (1952); excerpts from Ezra Pound's Cantos and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855); as well as quotes by José Bergamín, Frank Stanford, Virginia Woolf, and many others. This assortment of texts, words, and genres make up a disparate and real archive. These archival boxes are also a part of the story world. They hold the family's contents and are kept in the trunk of their car. Both figurative and literal, these archival "Boxes" act as the catalysts for the novel. Through them, the reader and the narrator move forward and backward in time, leaping from scene to scene illustrating vivid vignettes of the family's past, present, and foreseeable future. The formal "Boxes" are further divided into shorter sections, mini chapters with labels like "Family Lexicon," "Foundational Myths," "Maps," "Footprints," and "Credible Fears." Like a real archive, the novel's "Boxes" give access to different perspectives, moments, and settings.
In Lost Children Archive, the road becomes a metaphor for parenthood, a type of uncharted territory which the parents must safely navigate. The children are, as the narrator states, "the escape route out of the family dramas, taking us to their strangely luminous underworld, safe from our middle-class catastrophes." These "middle-class catastrophes" include their ant-infested apartment in New York City, the parents' esoteric careers as sound surveyors and their previous lives with other people. With songs and games, the children temporarily save their parents from their banal existence. These escape routes are ephemeral, however, as external and internal crises pull the parents back to their quotidian lives and coerce them to face their parental angst and individual life goals.
The parents are careerists but also parents, and at times neither. They work on separate sound projects, and their next worksite is the Southwest. The father wants to record the Apache people in Arizona and the sounds of the region while the mother wants to continue to the border and record child refugees. Through stories and lessons, the parents involve the children in their research. For example, as the highways merge, the father keeps the children entertained with stories about the life Geronimo, the last Apache to surrender to the "White Eyes." The mother says that the husband's stories about Geronimo "bring time closer to us, containing it inside the car instead of letting it stretch out beyond us like an unattainable goal." In other words, these...