At the southern border of the United States, the Trump administration continues to commit various crimes against humanity. The optimistic among us hope Trump and his team eventually suffer a comeuppance. For the families experiencing it, revenge fantasies likely do little to attenuate the trauma. Their oppression remains ongoing and unabated.
Our immigration crisis creeps into the life of the unnamed protagonist in Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive. Like most of us in a place of relative privilege, the protagonist has more pressing matters, such as her job, her child, and her husband. But she slides into an advocate position accidentally, after witnessing the trauma of her neighbor, whose two children got caught up in the immigrant industrial complex while crossing the border. The crisis eventually comes to dominate her life.
Sadness is present in this novel from the beginning. We follow the story of a family slowly disintegrating. The narrator and her husband (known as “husband”), his son (known as “the boy”), and her daughter (known as “the girl”), will not survive this story as a whole unit.
The narrator sees their imminent separation. The novel is her attempt to explain it, to understand it herself, and to provide an answer for her children. She knows it’s happening. At one point in the novel, she says, “The children will ask, because ask is what children do. We’ll need to give them an answer, tell them a proper story.”
The couple work as sound documentarians. The boy explains the subtle differences in their jobs in the text: “Pa was a documentarist and Ma was a documentarian, and very few people know the difference. The difference is, just so you know, that a documentarian is like a librarian and a documentarist is like a chemist.” For us, these distinctions matter less. They have both been capturing snippets of sound from around New York City for an archive. During this project, the narrator meets a woman with two young daughters who have been captured while crossing the southern border. At first, the narrator is only helping translate documents to help the children’s legal case, but then finds herself drawn in and committed to finding the children, who are lost in the immigration system.
When the sound project in New York City ends, husband takes on a new project recording the the last remnants of Apache culture, and the family decides to embark on a road trip for his new job. The narrator experiences the disillusion of her own family, with husband and his boy remaining there, and she and her daughter returning to New York. She recognizes early that the road trip will serve as a final farewell.
Luiselli succeeds by building narratives on complex metaphors. She has framed the story around a family slowly torn apart. Their fate parallels the fate of immigrants crossing the border. The slow cleaving of the family unit mirrors the situation of the children the narrator is trying to save. It offers a lens into this trauma because we can experience it through the narrator. Her separation crisis offers a more familiar way of entering into that pain, and by-and-large, the work benefits from using these relationships to create drama. The reader endures anxiety and fear when the boy and girl run away — we worry if they will be reunited and whether they will survive. We are meant to have these emotions transitively imbued onto the lost migrant children.
The dissolution of the family unit also creates a similar anxiety because, as readers, we know it is coming. The narrator builds the tension: “More and more, my presence here, on this trip with my family, driving toward a future we most probably won’t share, settling into motel rooms for the night, feels ghostly, a life witnessed and not lived.” Luiselli mirrors the familiar — a family on a road trip and the plight of immigrant families crossing the border.
This mirroring between different lives is sometimes more subtle. At a canyon, characters listen to the echoes of their voices bounce off the walls. The girl thinks the lost children are out there, but the boy explains, “there’s no one out there, Memphis, it’s just our own voices.” And yet, more broadly, Memphis (“the girl”) is right. The lost children are out there. But then again, so is the boy. They are us.
The structure of the novel is an important component for how the reader consumes it. The first portion of the novel, narrated by the woman, is divided into quick scenes, often disconnected from the preceding scene. The stories build on later pieces, but each scene is short, often just a flash. The immediate effect is that the early portion of the novel feels like a very long short story, layered together with unconnected parts. It also keeps the pace moving quickly, simulating the road trip the family embarks on. The scenes in many ways feel like the blurry landscape seen through the side window of a fast moving car. It also creates an effect of a soundscape — the very thing the narrator and husband have been tasked with making as archivists. The reader is seeing a kind of soundscape of the family — moments have been captured.
The novel is also divided up into boxes — these are the seven boxes the family takes with them on their trip. One box belongs to the narrator, four for her husband, and one each for the boy and girl. The characters reference these boxes directly. The boy initially keeps his box empty, but collects snapshots taken with a Polaroid, and in the end, these photographs become part of the text. The images contribute to the verisimilitude of the novel by blurring the line between narrator and author, by giving us real faces of real people. The effect is that we are meant to think Luiselli is our narrator, and that the girl is actually her daughter, and these events have truly happened. Whether they did or not is immaterial. As a reader, we believe they could have happened. Luiselli has supercharged the impact of the narrative by tricking us.
Literary and pop culture references abound in the novel. The characters frequently listen to contemporary songs during their road trip, but also their boxes include books from the literary canon. The narrator lists the materials within the boxes — titles by Pound, Kerouac, Golding, and Conrad. There are historical images too, such as pieces of the husband’s research of the Apache tribe. The visuals, especially the Polaroid photos, and the lists of literary references is reminiscent of other novels that include alternative narrative forms, like Jennifer Egan including a PowerPoint presentation in A Visit from the Goon Squad.
These visual elements and alternatives to prose offer more than a gimmick. Among these items are migrant mortality reports alongside maps. The effect is to treat these documents recording the death of refugees in the same manner as books of the literary canon. We are meant to see these documents as equals, telling narratives on their own. We engage with the mortality report of a Arizaga, a baby boy, and Nuria Huertas-Fernandez, as we do reading Heart of Darkness, a text filled with dehumanizing depictions of native people and Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a text about men devolving into animals. While abstract, these micro-narratives work well within the text.
Moments of comparison are Luiselli’s strength. Her ability to create parallels — to mirror the familiar alongside the unknown — is the beauty of her work. She links something we understand to the thing we are ignoring.
The plot of the novel does not surprise. It is not a mystery. The narrator and her husband split as foreshadowed. The boy and girl are never endangered. But mystery, danger, and plot are not the point. These characters are portholes for us to observe, to see things we don’t ordinarily see, or that we do, and ignore.
Ignoring is what we have been doing. The truth is that the migrant crisis, much like the novel, began long before the President came to power. We just didn’t care. Luiselli forces us to pay attention.
Lost Children Archive
By Valeria Luiselli
Published Feb. 12, 2019
Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield in 2022. His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Offing, Electric Literature, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He serves as the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an MA in English from Rutgers University, tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com.