A man, a woman, and their two children embark on a road trip from New York City to the desert Southwest. Both adults work with sound in creative contexts: He records ambient noise to achieve a sense of history and place, while she is interested in people’s stories. They met while working on a long project but now each is pursuing something new. She wants to record the undocumented migrant children being deported from camps in Texas and New Mexico, and he wants to record what he calls the “echoes” around the graves of Geronimo and the Chiricahua Apache Indians in Oklahoma, because they were the last Native American band to surrender to the white man.
In Lost Children Archive, a self-consciously literary novel by Valeria Luiselli, the pair has a long-simmering semantic argument over the difference between a “documentarian” and a “documentarist.” This unstated authorial joke is on the doomed couple: The terms are basically synonymous, minor variations on a theme that would be crucial only to the person whose art is in question.
The children — a ten-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl — sit in the back seat and listen to the voices of their parents, as well as narrators of audiobooks and singers of songs. Their favorite song is about a lost astronaut, “Space Odyssey” by David Bowie. In the book’s first sections, which are narrated by the mother, neither the children nor the adults have names. In later portions, narrated by the son, the children use names they gave to themselves. Luiselli is a deeply granular writer who tends to break every image down into component parts and give the weight of philosophy to passing observations, yet this choice to have the mother refer to her children only as “the boy” and “the girl” makes her love for them — and their very existence — seem theoretical. It is the first but not the primary flaw in a novel that has all the trappings of a good story with rich characters, yet reads like an extended writing exercise about the creative process and authenticity.
Lost Children Archive is part road story and part hero’s journey, depending on who is narrating at the time. It is also a tale of divorce, in which the husband and wife are being driven apart by aesthetic concerns and the lure of differing geographies. But they have made a family together: Her daughter and his son are sister and brother now, as close as blood. The most affecting and endearing parts of the book are about their relationship and the trust they have built between them — but they do not come across as real children.
The father’s focus on what he seems to believe was the last of the Chiricahua Apaches is confusing: It’s as if he thinks that there are no modern-day Apaches, and that he is the only person who understands the necessity of remembering them. We are not given insight into his point of view, so this plotline is muddy at best, especially given that the novel is overly concerned with the suffering of marginalized Others. Luiselli treats the Others, as she does her main characters, as if they are mere ideas rather than whole human beings.
The novel has a somewhat complicated structure, with long sections broken up into fragments that read like a cross between short chapters and prose poetry. Many sections begin with a list of the contents of storage boxes the family has brought with them. The boxes contain books and research materials for the parents’ projects. The children have boxes, too, because they like to imitate their parents — in adorably inappropriate and often wise ways.
Conversely, the parents are unpleasant, unrelentingly stuck in their own heads, concerned only with “the work.” But just as with many other aspects of Lost Children Archive, it’s difficult to tell the difference between the characters’ personalities and the author’s point of view.
In a “works cited” section after the novel’s end, Luiselli writes that the various books and other works to which she refers in the text — and from which she quotes at length — are not supposed to be ornamental but are to “function as intralinear markers that point to the many voices in the conversation that the book sustains with the past.” Unfortunately, this turgid explanation doesn’t improve the novel. Lost Children Archive’s potential is buried under unnecessary literary experimentalism, almost all of which could be stripped away without losing the story’s heart or momentum.