A Novel for Our Times
Francisco Goldman on Valeria Luiselli
In the fall of 2008, in New York, I was contacted—probably by email—by a young woman newly arrived in the city from Mexico City, Valeria Luiselli. Her cousin in Mexico City, Juanca, is a close friend. A lot of that period remains enveloped in a murky haze because my wife Aura had been dead for a little over a year. The earliest mention of Valeria I can find in my emails is one to my friend the writer and sometimes magazine editor Daniel Alarcon, passing on to him an early copy of Valeria’s essay “Papeles falsos.” In that email I wrote: “This is the weird thing— like Aura, she went to the UNAM, and is at Columbia with some of the same scholarships and in the same department. And like Aura had, she publishes in Letras Libres. She’s only 25. Anyway, this essay of hers blew me away, it’s so charming and smart.” Daniel soon wrote back, and was just as enthused about the essay.
Yes, like Aura, who’d died at age 30, Valeria had also come from the glorious UNAM, the public university in Mexico City, to study for a doctorate at Columbia, and was also full of brilliance and that chilanga verve and hilarity. They even shared similar obsessions with Mexican poets who had resided in New York in the early decades of the 20th century. For Aura it was José Juan Tablada, who’d introduced the haiku to Mexico—she’d wanted to write a novel in which she imagined him composing his famous “Japanese” poems without ever going there, as he claimed he had, all the time living in New York. Valeria of course would later imagine the obscure New York life of the poet Gilberto Owen in her haunting and haunted novel, Faces in the Crowd.
I remember that the Columbia University-owned apartment building where Valeria lived was so similar to the one Aura was living in when we met that I thought it might even be the same one. A memory of sitting at a table in her student apartment, maybe the one time I visited, staring in dazed wonder up at her bookshelves and listening to Valeria talk about her life, about poetry and poets especially, Pound, Zukofsky, Dickinson. I was amazed by her sophistication, her energy, the beautiful motor of her mind. It was all a little overwhelming, frankly. Meeting her was a bit like a haunting, a bittersweetly nostalgic one. I was happy and grateful to have this marvelous new friend in my life
I remember reading more of those earlier pieces, maybe the one about the doorman and the window of that same apartment building, maybe the one about looking for Joseph Brodsky’s grave in Venice.
“Searching for a grave,” she writes in that essay—“Joseph Brodsky’s Room and a Half”—“is to some extent like arranging to meet a stranger in a café, the lobby of a hotel or a public square, in that both activities are ways of being there and looking. At a given distance every person could be the one waiting for us, every grave the one we are searching for.”
That sentence alone, a soft explosion of poetry and thought, blows open shutters on a landscape your mind wants to go roaming in; it gives you a new way of being there and looking. She was a grad student from Mexico City then, but ten years on, there are now thousands and thousands of readers who, coming upon that sentence, maybe not having read it before, would immediately think, that seems like a Valeria Luiselli sentence.
The man she would soon be going out with, and would then marry, Alvaro, was also a good friend of mine from Mexico City, a writer I’d admired for years. By then I was living most of every year in Mexico City, and only occasionally got to see them, usually at boozy, festive dinner parties in their little apartment in Harlem. Our paths now and then intersected, at the Oaxaca Book Fair when Valeria came, with Alejandro Zambra, to give our annual Aura Estrada Prize reading at the fair, and through our separate involvements with Still Waters in a Storm, Stephen Haff’s miraculous “learning sanctuary” for immigrant kids in Bushwick.
Over those years, Valeria published four acclaimed books: a pair of novels, a book of essays, a book-length essay, each of these formally unique, ranging from the nearly demented dervish playfulness of Story of My Teeth to the morally urgent, nothing remotely-like-it-ever-before, and indispensable Tell Me How It Ends, a surgical yet emotionally wrenching inquiry and meditation on child refugees of Central America and the lethal absurdities of our immigration laws and courts.Has anybody expressed what it’s like to be alive in the USA right now so perfectly and concisely as Valeria has?
I knew beforehand that Valeria was in some way novelizing that book, incorporating the experience of a trip she’s taken into the Southwest to the border with Alvaro and their children. I was expecting something remarkable, but I wasn’t expecting to have my mind utterly blown like this. Lost Children Archive is a novel that already seems destined to become synonymous with our time, one that somehow transforms that time, the way we are in it, the way we look at it and read it. Has anybody expressed what it’s like to be alive in the USA right now so perfectly and concisely as Valeria has when she writes: “Something changed in the world. Not too long ago it changed, and we know it… We feel time differently. No one has been able to capture what is happening or say why. Perhaps it’s just that we sense an absence of future, because the present has become too overwhelming, so the future has become unimaginable.”
How to describe that book, which is like nothing else? Lost Children Archive is as dazzling and manifold in its inventiveness and playful seriousness as Pale Fire or Hopscotch, yet as intimate and lovely and grave, at times even mystical, as Chekhov, if you hold in your memory at the same time, say, stories like “About Love,” “In the Ravine,” and “Ward Six” (this comparison comes to me because I’ve been re-reading Chekhov—all I mean to do is evoke a work of staggering beauty, honesty and moral urgency). It’s a novel about a road trip taken from New York City to the American Southwest by a young Mexican couple and their two small children. The couple at first seem so engagingly and touchingly right for each other that you find yourself reading about their disintegrating marriage with an empathetic ache in your heart. He is a sound documentarian headed to Apacheria to carry out a resonantly ambitious project recording the ghosts of the vanished and doomed 19th-century Apache resistance; she is a radio documentary-maker and journalist who has become—initially through her work as a New York immigration court translator—intellectually and emotionally obsessed with the situation of migrant children facing deportation, mostly from Central America, and the harrowing and growing crisis of the many thousands of children fleeing the brutal conditions of their countries, headed to the US-Mexico border.
Prosaic denunciation of unfathomably cruel circumstances we are, by now, well aware of, is not Luiselli’s or her female narrator’s aim. Rather it is to immerse us in a multi-sided, rigorously kaleidoscopic, almost insomniac evocation and questioning of every facet of that experience: how we travel through this landscape that is then (2014) and now; what we read, look at, bring with us and collect along the way in order to keep a record of where we’ve been and of how we each tried to comprehend it and ourselves (the archives); the story of what is really happening out there, with Central America’s lost journeying children, brilliantly staged through an empathetic imagining and—one almost wants to say shamanistic—retelling of how they, the journeying children might tell it; and, finally, at the end of the novel, the experimental transgressing of boundaries that “in reality” are never transgressed, when the mom narrator’s son and daughter, fleeing their parents’ brutal unhappiness, lose themselves in a version of that often lethal journey that no child should ever have to endure and yet is out there happening every day… All that narrated by the little boy in a breathtaking, harrowing, dizzyingly visceral sentence that runs for some 20 pages.
It would be impossible here to name everything I love about this novel, partly because with every passing hour since I finished reading it something else occurs to me. This is a book, like others of Valeria’s, that by making its radically original processes transparent to us, seems to include us in it so that we experience its writing and thinking, the living that went into it, its pain and rapture, its ghostliness and visceral vivacity, in the reading of it, all at once, in surround sound, surround vision, surround thought. This is an American road trip novel simultaneously elevated into every classic road trip in literature film and art—how smart it was to leave that GPS behind! A novel whose patterns and structure are deeply musical, orchestral, but rock and roll too, circular and driving forward at once. This is a book that executes the humble writerly disciplines, reminding me time and again of the Ford Maddox Ford dictum that you can’t have a man appear long enough to sell a newspaper in a story unless you put him there with enough detail to make the reader see him, that radiant specificity that lets the reader see and sense its vast emptinesses as well, its silences and ghosts.
The narrator asks: “How can a radio documentary be useful in helping more undocumented children find asylum?” Let’s think of that as an existential question. Probably most of us would like somehow to be useful in this way, but how? One step is not to forget what it’s like to be a child, whether loved and nurtured, or lost and alone in the most treacherous landscape.
“Don’t stop being a little girl,” thinks the narrator to her daughter. “Always defend yourself from this empty fucked up world; cover it with your thumb.”
Among this novel’s many gifts to the reader are the ways in which it repeatedly shows how “children’s imaginations destabilize our adult sense of reality and force us to question the very grounds of that reality. The more time one spends surrounded by children,” writes Luiselli, “disconnected from other adults, the more their imaginations leak through the cracks of our own fragile structures.” In ways both concrete and abstract, isn’t our true job on earth to protect and guide and look out for children, whether as parents relatives or citizens? It is in all the ways that it brings the often unfathomable world of childhood closer to us that Lost Children Archive engenders a love of that transcendent and manifold duty, and begins to change us.