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At the Border of the Novel

The Story of My Teeth

by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney

Coffee House, 195 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Faces in the Crowd

by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney

Coffee House, 146 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Sidewalks

by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney, with an introduction by Cees Nooteboom

Coffee House, 110 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Patrice HelmarValeria Luiselli, New York City, January 2019

Although Valeria Luiselli lives in New York City, she isn’t herself American—not by birth (she was born in Mexico), nor by upbringing (her father was a diplomat, her international childhood nomadic), nor, to a significant degree, in her literary influences and style. But the five books she has written so far expand our understanding of American literature. Lost Children Archive, her third novel, is the first that she has written in English (her first two were very well translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney), and it is a passionate, if complicated, American novel—or, perhaps more accurately, a novel of the Americas.

For all their inventiveness, neither of her earlier novels could have led readers fully to anticipate this ambitious, somber, urgent new work. Her first, Faces in the Crowd (2014), is the artfully fragmented account of a young woman who, as she writes about her husband and small children, creates apocryphal translations of poems and extracts from an autobiographical narrative by the (actual) Mexican poet Gilberto Owen (1904–1952). Luiselli plays with reality and literary convention (in a manner familiar from European and Latin American fictions from Pirandello to Borges to Bolaño) and combines that play with an often ironic, intermittently autofictional recording of daily life’s more banal moments, in a way popularized in contemporary North American fiction by women writers like Sheila Heti or Jenny Offill.

Luiselli’s second novel, The Story of My Teeth (2015), is driven by the inimitable voice of Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, an auctioneer whose tall tales about the literary provenance of his own teeth (he claims one belonged to Saint Augustine, for example, and another to Virginia Woolf) and whose different styles of storytelling salesmanship engage the reader in a lively narrative dance. Filled with absurdist literary allusions (“My uncle Marcelo Sánchez-Proust once wrote in his diary…”), the novel was in fact commissioned by the Galería Jumex, an art gallery outside Mexico City, as a serial narrative for the workers at Mexico’s Jumex juice factory, part of an exhibition exploring connections between the gallery and the Jumex empire. In an afterword, Luiselli explains that “many of the stories told in this book come from the workers’ personal accounts—though names, places and details are modified.” The almost frothy quality of the book’s pacing arises in part, surely, from its conception as a serial: we are buoyed along by episodic comic surprise.

Between The Story of My Teeth and Lost Children Archive, Luiselli wrote a slim, memorable volume of nonfiction, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (2017), expanded from an essay that appeared in Freeman’s magazine in 2016. (This was her second nonfiction book: her first, Sidewalks, from 2010, is an allusive and, again, cleverly fragmented series of meditations on topics ranging from Joseph Brodsky’s grave, to bicycling, to the empty spaces in Mexico City.) In the course of applying for permanent resident status in the United States, Luiselli and her family took a road trip in the summer of 2014, from New York to Cochise County, Arizona, near the US–Mexico border. The following year, back in New York, she became a volunteer interpreter in the federal immigration court. The essay reconstructs both Luiselli’s initiation into the world of immigration courts (including the lives of several of the vast number of children seeking asylum) and her family’s journey across the southern US by car. As Latin Americans, they attract questions from policemen, one of whom remarks sardonically, “So you come all the way down here for the inspiration.” She notes that “since 2006, around 120,000 migrants have disappeared in their transit through Mexico,” and that “between April 2014 and August 2015, more than 102,000 unaccompanied children had been detained at the [US] border.” Horrified by the statistics and the dark realities they represent, Luiselli writes:

Perhaps the only way to grant any justice—were that even possible—is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable.

The conceptual overlap between Tell Me How It Ends and Lost Children Archive is considerable. It is not new for a writer to address a subject in multiple forms. Camus famously did this when grappling with his theory of the absurd, writing three thematically linked but profoundly different works: The Myth of Sisyphus (a philosophical essay), The Stranger (a novel), and Caligula (a play). In his case the works are markedly distinct, however, and each is fully realized on its own terms; whereas here, Luiselli’s novel, framed, like the essay, by a family’s road trip across the United States from New York to Arizona, repurposes both literal and thematic material in ways that don’t feel fully realized in the novel.

The novel’s unnamed characters—the mother, the father, the ten-year-old boy (the father’s child from a previous relationship), and the five-year-old girl (the mother’s child, also from a previous relationship)—reflect the configuration of Luiselli’s own family in the essay. Specific details from the essay recur in the novel—from the idea of the mother in “the copilot’s seat” to the policeman’s quip about “the inspiration”—as well as the presence of two young sisters from Guatemala, whose “grandmother sewed a ten-digit telephone number on the collars of the dress each girl would wear throughout the entire trip.” In the essay, Luiselli writes, “sometimes, when our children fall asleep again, I look back at them, or hear them breathe, and wonder…. Were they to find themselves alone, crossing borders and countries, would my own children survive?” This question will be posed, and then acted out, in Lost Children Archive.

In the course of Luiselli’s work as an interpreter, helping children answer an NGO’s intake questionnaire (hence the forty questions of her essay’s subtitle), she learns that most children, coming from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, have traveled “‘on La Bestia,’ which literally means ‘the beast,’ and refers to the freight trains that cross Mexico, on top of which as many as half a million Central American migrants ride annually.” In Lost Children Archive, this journey—and the subsequent crossing of the border into the American desert—forms the subject of a fictional book within the novel that the mother is reading, Elegies for Lost Children by Ella Camposanto. The embedded narrative reaches toward myth, producing some of the most arresting prose in Lost Children Archive:

They were all asleep and did not hear or see the woman who, also asleep, rolled off the side of the roof of their gondola. Tumbling awake as she went down the jagged ridge, she’d torn open her stomach on a broken branch, and kept on falling, until her body thumped flat, into abrupt emptiness. The first living thing to notice her, the next morning, was a porcupine, its spines erect and its tummy ballooned on larch and crab apples. It sniffed one of her feet, the one that was unshod, and then circled around her, uninterested, sniffing its way toward a bunch of drying poplar catkins.

Lost Children Archive contains many formal complexities, but its most basic structural feature is a division between the accounts of a mother and her young stepson. The novel’s first half is recounted by the mother, a Luiselli-like figure who takes a road trip with her family to Arizona. She and her husband are both sound archivists, albeit of different sorts: “We’d say that I was a documentarist and he was a documentarian, which meant that I was more like a chemist and he was more like a librarian.” The impetus for their journey is her husband’s documentary project on the Apaches, for which he has received a grant: “The material he had to collect for this project was linked to specific locations, but this soundscape was going to be different. He called it an ‘inventory of echoes,’ said it would be about the ghosts of Geronimo and the last Apaches.” Up till now the narrator has been more practical and journalistic in her own approach, but she too is pursuing a project, one she calls a “Lost Children Archive,” the exact substance of which is initially unclear:

I’m not sure that I’d ever be able to—or should—get as close to my sources as possible. Although a valuable archive of the lost children would need to be composed, fundamentally, of a series of testimonies or oral histories that register their own voices telling their stories, it doesn’t seem right to turn those children, their lives, into material for media consumption.

The paradoxical nature of the endeavor is apparent: the lost children, being lost, cannot be heard. To hear these stories, the narrator must find the children, of course; next to this problem, her concern for potential media exploitation is surely secondary. The alternative is to invent their stories, in one way or another.

As the family travels westward the parents’ relationship deteriorates, while the plight of the immigrant children at the border grows increasingly pressing. Availing herself of a grand American trope—the road novel—Luiselli turns it sideways: her protagonist is no footloose American man, but the immigrant mother of a nuclear family. They travel not between coasts but away from the city, from the center to the margins—their progress, if it can be called that, recalls The Sheltering Sky more than On the Road. The reader is privy to fairly little of their daily reality, beyond the occasional diner experience or reference to their audiobook choices (the opening sentence of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road recurs, ominously). While we are granted charming glimpses of the children, their gestures, questions, and games, the narrator’s husband remains largely opaque, present chiefly in his pedagogical role, educating the children about the Apaches, a history of colonial violence and slaughter.

The second half of the novel is mostly narrated by the woman’s unnamed stepson, addressing his younger sister. Dismayed by the parents’ unraveling marriage and his stepmother’s growing obsession with the lost children, he hatches a plan to run away: “I wanted to remind her that even though those children were lost, we were not lost, we were there, right there next to her. And it made me wonder, what if we got lost, would she then finally pay attention to us?” He successfully dragoons his sister into following him, and the two set off into the inhospitable landscape, armed only with maps, a compass, a flashlight, and other sundries filched from their parents.

This strand of the narrative is suspenseful, but its progression and resolution make clear that we are in the realm of consoling—and not entirely convincing—fantasy rather than in that of truth. The children’s trajectory is interspersed, ever more heavily, with the fictional novel-within-a-novel, Elegies for Lost Children. Before the children’s departure, their mother has realized that “they are the ones who are telling the story of the lost children. They’ve been telling it all along, over and over again in the back of the car”; appropriately, then, her stepson ultimately manages—as if, of narrative necessity, living out his stepmother’s projection—to conflate his and his sister’s story with that of the children in the Elegies. In embarking on their journey, they are seeking the actual lost children (the two young sisters from Guatemala); they have themselves become lost children; and the lost children in the Elegies seem real to the boy. This melding culminates in the boy’s extended, highly literary first-person stream-of-consciousness section near the novel’s end. The children walk following

the same eagles the lost children now see as they walk north into the desert plain, beating muscled wings, threading in and out of black thunderclouds, they see them with their bare eyes, the five of them, as they walk onward, under the sun, keeping close together and silent, in a tight horde, deeper and deeper into the silent heart of light, saying nothing and hearing almost nothing, because nothing can be heard except the monotonous sound of their own footsteps, on and on across these deadlands, never stopping because if they stop, they will die, this they know, this they’ve been told…

This bow to modernism—the passage is drawn from a sentence that continues for almost twenty pages—is but one of the novel’s many stylistic intricacies. Its intention is clear (to unite, through the boy’s voice, all the lost children), yet its effect is not ultimately transcendent.

A commitment to formal innovation has been central to Luiselli’s work; in this regard Lost Children Archive is clearly linked to its predecessors. Faces in the Crowd is made up of brief sections—fragments—told from shifting perspectives. More adventurous, The Story of My Teeth, divided into seven books (separated by marbled papers), includes epigraphs in various forms, auction lot descriptions, a series of photographs, and a timeline (compiled by Christina MacSweeney). The new novel, still more formally complicated, is divided into four parts, each subdivided into sections (among them seven archival “boxes,” the contents of which are either listed or contained in the text, including photographs, maps, and news cuttings), and further into subsections. Among these are fifteen parenthetical sections of the Elegies by Ella Camposanto, whose surname means “cemetery” in Spanish and is also the title of W.G. Sebald’s posthumous book of essays. The majority of the subsections have less clearly directive titles—such as “MAPS,” “INVENTORY,” or “COPULA & COPULATION.” The reader will understand that taxonomies, however apparently extraneous, are important to this text: they effect the imposition of order upon rampant disorder. It is presumably possible, though mercifully not necessary, to interpret the novel according to these titles.

Such games and allusions are important to the texture of Lost Children Archive. Luiselli’s stylistic freedoms—roaming from the adult narrator’s highly realistic (and, one suspects, often autobiographical) reflections to the child’s frankly implausible fairy tale adventure, to the dark myth-like storytelling of the Elegies—form a patchwork designed simultaneously to reflect and reinterpret our current reality.

Valeria LuiselliPhotograph from Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive

The mother’s narrative voice, in its varying registers, sounds as natural as is possible. Her thoughts meander between history and the present day (“Searching online about the children’s crisis, I find a New York Times article from a couple of years back, titled ‘Children at the Border.’… No one thinks of those children as consequences of a historical war that goes back decades”); personal reminiscences (“And then the boy turned ten. We took him out to a good restaurant, gave him presents (no toys). I got him a Polaroid camera and several boxes of film, both black and white and color”); and literary and artistic analysis (of figures as varied as Walt Whitman, Susan Sontag, and Emmet Gowin). She recalls demonstrating outside an immigration detention center on Varick Street in New York, in the company of a priest named Father Juan Carlos. She remembers her mother leaving the family to join a Mexican guerrilla movement when she herself was ten years old (something that actually happened in Luiselli’s life). She tells us about a remarkable (and real) educator named Stephen Haff, whose one-room schoolhouse in Brooklyn, Still Waters in a Storm, teaches underprivileged kids to translate Cervantes and instructs them in Latin.

The first half of the novel reads less like fiction than like a record of time spent in a café with a particularly interesting friend—one whose observations are alternately delightful and trenchant, unexpected and familiar; one whose presumption of her interlocutor’s intelligence and erudition is both flattering and quickening. One passage, on our contemporary relationship to time, while not original (these thoughts have been articulated in the past), seems especially true today:

I’m not sure, though, what “for later” means anymore. Something changed in the world. Not too long ago, it changed, and we know it. We don’t know how to explain it yet, but I think we all can feel it, somewhere deep in our gut or in our brain circuits. We feel time differently. No one has quite 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. And without future, time feels like only an accumulation…. Perhaps if we found a new way to document it, we might begin to understand this new way we experience space and time.

It seems logical to infer from this astute observation that Luiselli’s novel itself endeavors to find a new way to “document” the present. In a digression of impressive creative frankness, Luiselli’s character muses on the perils of modern storytelling:

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? I should know, by now, that instrumentalism, applied to any art form, is a way of guaranteeing really shitty results: light pedagogic material, moralistic young-adult novels, boring art in general. Professional hesitance: But then again, isn’t art for art’s sake so often an absolutely ridiculous display of intellectual arrogance? Ethical concern: And why would I even think that I can or should make art with someone else’s suffering? Pragmatic concern: Shouldn’t I simply document, like the serious journalist I was when I first started working in radio and sound production? Realistic concern: Maybe it is better to keep the children’s stories as far away from the media as possible, anyway, because the more attention a potentially controversial issue receives in the media, the more susceptible it is to becoming politicized, and in these times, a politicized issue is no longer a matter that urgently calls for committed debate in the public arena but rather a bargaining chip that parties use frivolously in order to move their own agendas forward. 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, am I mentally colonized by Western-Saxon-white categories, what’s the correct use of personal pronouns, go light on the adjectives, and oh, who gives a fuck how very whimsical phrasal verbs are?

These reflections suggest how hampered Luiselli may have felt in approaching her intense and demanding factual material. Serious and highly literary, passionately politically engaged, unwilling to rely on forms that feel to her out of date and insufficient, she is, at the same time, constrained by an awareness of critiques that might be leveled against her fiction. For her fellow artists, the imposing reach of this project—both to acknowledge and somehow to assimilate all of these questions—is invigorating and absorbing. It is also risky. As she endeavors to marry fact-like fiction (the cross-country journey of a Luiselli-like storyteller in the company of her family) with fairytale-like fiction (the child’s adventure story, complete with implausible happy ending), with dark myth (the Elegies), with a strong political intention that nevertheless aims to avoid propaganda, all the while spinning formal complexity upon formal complexity, there is ultimately a sense that the center cannot hold.

Art is an act of transformation: the passage of material through an imaginative crucible, and the creation of something new. That something new must have its own integrity, must be greater than the sum of its parts. Camus’s explorations of the absurd in The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus measure the distinction between a novelistic embodiment of human experience and an essayistic distillation of thought. Many elements of Lost Children Archive are extraordinary, and yet the ultimate act of transformation has not occurred. One might of course contend that, in this ghastly time, such a transformation is no longer possible; but Luiselli’s decision to write a novel at all surely affirms otherwise.

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