This essay analyzes Valeria Luiselli's 2019 novel Lost Children Archive's attempt to imagine anti‐imperialist solidarity aesthetics in a moment of the increasing imbrication of the US literary sphere and settler colonial capitalist surveillance of the US‐Mexico border, as well as the nonprofit care regime that has arisen to oppose and ameliorate its effects. Because these structures converge around overt and subterranean investments in settler colonial frontier fantasy, the essay focuses particularly on Lost Children Archive's engagement with the tradition of the white male road novel Western in the Americas—Luiselli's attempts to write both through and against this form—as part of the novel's larger attempt to grapple with the formal problems that adhere in representing the temporality and scale of ongoing Central American Indigenous dispossession and refugee displacement in settler colonial capitalism. In exploring the degree to which the Western genre's tradition of, per Philip Deloria, “playing Indian” might oppose the brutal bureaucratic violence of the xenophobic carceral settler US state, the novel builds a critique of the frontier road novel fantasy that it cannot quite sustain.
In March of 2020, when US state and private institutions started to adjust to the global COVID-19 pandemic, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began disappearing children. This was a difference in degree, not kind, from ICE's previous treatment of Mexican and Central American child refugees at the US-Mexico border: the US government regularly imprisons these children in cages, leaving them hungry and freezing and sick, and shuffles them between detention facilities so their relatives or advocacy organizations like the ACLU cannot find them (Flores and Luiselli 2019; Kriel 2020). But in the COVID-19 pandemic, ICE instituted a new expulsion policy. The state employed private contractors to detain unaccompanied minors in hotels without giving them access to credible fear interviews or hearings that might offer them a path to asylum, much less entering their information into the immigration system. They then unceremoniously deported them, often “informally expel[ing] them to Mexico, . . . alone in the middle of the night and without being processed by Mexican immigration officials,” rendering these children lost to their families who might be searching for them (Kriel 2020).
How and in what terms can these children's disappeared lives be represented? This is the question haunting Valeria Luiselli's 2019 novel Lost Children Archive (LCA). Luiselli, a Mexican novelist whose previous work includes a novel composed through long-distance correspondence with Jumex juice factory workers, began writing LCA in 2014 in response to the US government's treatment of unaccompanied refugee children. Mostly from Central America, often Indigenous, these children were fleeing the ongoing aftermaths of US-sponsored war and the devastating effects of climate disaster and extractive capitalism, only to be greeted by the Obama administration with torture, detention, and accelerated deportation. Upon publication, LCA was celebrated by critics; longlisted for the Booker Prize and the Women's Prize for Fiction before winning the Rathbones Folio Prize; and, ironically enough, chosen by former President Obama for his “favorite books of 2019” list. The novel grapples with the inadequacy of language and narrative to capture the temporality and scales—hemispheric and intimate—of ongoing Central American and Mexican refugee dispossession, torture, incarceration, and disappearance by the US settler colonial capitalist carceral state. This violence, and the lives of the children who live with it, seems to exceed the narrative capacity of any of the forms at Luiselli's disposal: the road novel, but also the legal intake form, the essay, and autofiction, all forms Luiselli experimented with over the course of writing the novel.
Luiselli's struggle is representative of a broader condition that Lauren Berlant (2018) names “genre flail,” the intertwined activist and artistic scramble to represent the violence of the world, when old aesthetic forms and new institutional bureaucratic ones seem insufficient to capture the enormity of the present's violent collapse, partly because their representational politics undergird ongoing structures of violence, grant false authority over experience in the name of universality, or in some cases, exert raw power to quantify and surveil. The form Luiselli arrives at in LCA in response to the particularities of her “flail” is what we might call an archive novel, a novel that explicitly styles itself as an archive, and exposes novel writing as a curatorial practice of research and imagination, laying bare its sources (even as they double as the product of the characters’ own research and archival practices), less to offer persuasive evidentiary authority (though perhaps this is part of the solidarity project of the novel), and more to acknowledge the incompleteness of any representational project.1 For Luiselli, the archive enables the novel's meditations on the problem of narrating missing, disappeared refugee children, as well as the larger crisis of representation writers feel so acutely in this moment of “genre flail.”
This essay investigates the impetus for Luiselli's turn to, as well as her uses of, the archive novel form. The first half of the essay reads the novel as a response to the creeping intimacy of literary life with settler colonial surveillance capitalism in the “age of Amazon” (McGurl 2016), as well as what Ana Puenta Flores and Luiselli (2019) call the “bewildering bureaucratic violence” of US immigration enforcement. The remainder of the essay explores how LCA proposes an alternative to the reductive data and narrative regimes generated by the convergence of literary life managed by Amazon with the reading and interpretive practices of the US settler state, as well as the nonprofit volunteer groups that attempt to oppose them. The novel does so by imagining the lost children against and through the genre of the white male road novel in the Americas—exemplified in the text by Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957) and Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006)—and the settler fantasies of “playing Indian” (Deloria 1999) the Western road novel tradition relentlessly animates. Because of its interest in playing out the possibilities of a childish “repertoire” (Taylor 2003) of reenactment, in exploring the degree to which child play across sovereign difference might oppose the brutal bureaucratic violence of the xenophobic carceral settler state, the novel builds a critique of the frontier road novel fantasy that it cannot quite sustain.
We live and read now in what Mark McGurl has dubbed “The Age of Amazon.” Amazon, through its monopoly on bookselling and increasing ventures into publishing, has converted “literary experience into customer experience,” premised on an “ ideal . . . world composed entirely of customers and no workers” (McGurl 2016: 455, 454). McGurl (465) traces this ethos to Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Remains of the Day, the book Jeff Bezos credits for influencing his decision to start Amazon, arguing that we might think of “the whole sprawling enterprise” as a “reading” of the novel. Amazon inherits the “psychotic obsession with service” of Remains of the Day's butler-protagonist Stevens, who spends the novel fondly reminiscing about his days of service to his British lord during the decades leading up to World War II (McGurl 2016: 455). As Sarah Broulliette (2019: 455) shows, the novel is also a thwarted romance between Stevens and the housekeeper he can never admit to having feelings for: “that this is Jeff Bezos's favorite book,” she writes, “adds a whole other dimension to the romance genre's status as a driver of innovation in the book world. For Bezos romance means, simply, carpe diem. Follow your heart. Make that deal. Take that risk.”
But if The Remains of the Day guides Amazon's entrepreneurial service-oriented literary culture, it also offers customer service “professionalism” as an apologia for antirefugee, profascist policy. As Stevens says, when his Nazi-sympathizing employer asks him to fire their Jewish employees, “I carried out my duties to the best of my abilities, indeed to a standard which many may consider ‘first rate.’ It is hardly my fault if his lordship's life and work have turned out today to look, at best, a sad waste—and it is quite illogical that I should feel any regret or shame on my own account” (Ishiguro  1993: 148, 201). The Remains of the Day thus scripts the inseparability of Amazon's customer service –oriented literary culture from Amazon's collaborations with a racist state and law enforcement apparatus. As investigative reporters and worker-activists have shown over the past few years, Amazon plays an important role in migrant detention and deportation. Amazon collaborates with both ICE and the data-mining firm Palantir on whose “intelligence system” Investigative Case Management (ICM) ICE relies; ICM “allows ICE agents to access a vast ‘ecosystem’ of data to facilitate immigration officials in both discovering targets and then creating and administering cases against them” (Woodman 2017). In addition, Amazon also “hosts several of Department of Homeland Security's other major immigration-related databases and operations, including all the core data systems for USCIS and biometric data for 230 million individuals” (Hao 2018).
In July 2019, Amazon workers distributed an internal email demanding that Amazon sever its ties with Palantir and ICE, describing the company as powering the US government's detention “of people, including young children, in concentration camps under horrific conditions” (Chan 2019). The email cites a high-level Amazon executive defending the company's practices by saying “just because tech could be misused doesn't mean we should ban it and condemn it”; to this, the workers respond, “As Amazonians, we are told to take Ownership for our work, meaning we never say ‘that's not my job.’ Passing the buck on responsibility for the effects of our work is not Ownership” (Chan 2019). What these workers call attention to is not only how their undercompensated labor for their corporate overlord is magicked into “ownership,” but also how Amazon's service ethos, as in The Remains of the Day, becomes the governing logic for its participation in ethnonationalist, and in this case, imperialist and settler colonial, violence. Like Stevens, Bezos and company find it “quite illogical that [they] should feel any regret or shame on [their] own account,” never mind how and to what ends police, ICE, and the Border Patrol wield their technology.
These workers also demonstrate that any attempt to make sense of what it means to read in the “Age of Amazon” must grapple with Amazon's mercenary collaboration with the police and the policing of the US border.2 This task becomes more pressing as Amazon gradually outsources the labor of surveillance and criminalization to the reader: this is the work, on the one hand, of the mechanical turks who tag the images that supply the algorithms of facial recognition, and, on the other, of Amazon's Ring surveillance technology, which effectively turns Amazon book buyers into an arm of the police, recording and uploading suspicious videos of their front doorsteps in the name of protecting their Amazon purchases, videos the police then can privately solicit without a warrant (Harwell 2019). These actions place Amazon and its literary culture within a broader infrastructure of border surveillance, which has always relied on practices of data production and interpretation. As Iván Chaar-López (2019: 502 – 3) describes, the Border Patrol has long relied on a practice it calls “sign-cutting,” a process of identifying “changes imprinted on the natural landscape,” changes that “were a priori understood as suspect.” The “cutting” refers to two things: dividing “the large border terrain into discrete or manageable segments to scrutinize,” and the brutal “[severing of] the path of those attempting entry-without-inspection; track-producing subjects would be removed from the border and their tracks would reach a dead end” (502 – 3). Amazon's facial recognition labor and software, as well as its data storage for and data sharing with law enforcement and ICE, extends this border regime well beyond the border region, enlisting in its maintenance users and even readers who simply subsidize the enterprise through their purchases. As Chaar-López (2019: 503, 514) explains further, sign-cutting is a perversely co-opted Indigenous practice, first “appropriated by ‘frontiersmen’ for the purposes of settling ‘the West,’ ” and then “rearticulated” by the INS and the Border Patrol over the years through the growth of more advanced “technopolitical arrangement[s]” such as drones, surveillance towers, ground sensors, and cell phone signal interceptors in order to continue such “frontier politics of managing and containing the other.”3 Amazon makes those “frontier politics” central to the infrastructure of literary culture in the present.
LCA is a novel of the “Age of Amazon,” in that its struggle with form and genre stems from the question of how one might imagine anti-imperialist solidarity aesthetics—how one might write with and for child refugees—amid the increasing imbrication of the literary sphere, datafication, and settler colonial capitalist border surveillance, as well as a nonprofit care regime that has arisen to ameliorate its effects. Luiselli first articulates this dilemma in Tell Me How It Ends, the short book-length essay she interrupted her composition of LCA to write; she turned to the essay form in order to stop “using the novel as a space in which to pour all my angst and fury and political frustration and emotional sense of stalemate” at the violence of the US immigration system (Luiselli 2019b). In Tell Me How It Ends, the work of transmogrifying suffering vulnerable bodies into data is figured as a form of care labor, labor shaped by, but also attempting to counter, the vast bureaucratic infrastructure of the security state.4 That book records Luiselli's (2017: 7) experience translating Central American refugee children's stories into the language required for “the intake questionnaire used for unaccompanied child migrants” in New York's federal immigration courts. These questionnaires, and the screenings in which Luiselli participated, constituted the stopgap measure of nonprofit organizations attempting to solve the problem created by the Obama administration's invention of a “priority juvenile docket” in 2014, which shrunk the year unaccompanied minors had had to find a lawyer to a mere twenty-one days (Luiselli 2017: 39). Volunteers like Luiselli began attempting to write children's stories on the intake questionnaires in ways that might lead a pro bono lawyer to take their cases. “Battle wounds” (61), Luiselli explains—abuse, death threats, beatings—were perversely desirable, though even then, the work of data entry could only produce “a snapshot of a life that will wait in the dark until maybe someone finds it and decides to make it a case” (69).
Luiselli's essay casts both the intake form and popular media narratives as inadequate genres for capturing the experience of refugee children from Mexico and the Northern Triangle: “stories” of migrant children, she writes, “are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of narrative order. The problem of trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end” (Luiselli 2017: 7). Her structuring of Tell Me How It Ends through the intake form articulates the problem of a child migrant sandwiched between the esoteric, impossible requirements of the form—the hope that reduced to the right data a child might have a slim chance at a legal remedy and asylum—and the US media's erasure of the histories of US counterinsurgency, war, and extractive capitalism in Central America that led to the refugee crisis, as well as its elevation of the figure of the innocent good refugee that criminalizes everyone else (Saldaña-Portillo 2016; Loyd 2019). Both datafication and journalistic narration render “the Central American child . . . ‘unthinkable’ ” (Milian 2018: 17). The book thus also raises questions about the relationship between Luiselli's own solidarity care work of data entry and the data workers who labor, knowingly or not, to create and maintain border security infrastructure at the behest of Amazon, and more broadly, a border security regime that works by turning migrants into data, into interpretable signs, in a continual exercise of settler colonial power and frontier fantasy.
LCA directly engages with this dilemma in a scene late in the novel, buried in the twenty-page-long single sentence that captures the experiences of the mother narrator's children—the boy and girl, Swift Feather and Memphis, their self-given faux-Apache war names—after they have run away to look for the “lost children,” the child refugees migrating across the desert into uncertain futures. In this sentence, Swift Feather's first-person narration of his and Memphis's journey intertwines with the roving perspective of an omniscient third-person narrator. This narrator closely tracks the perspectives of the lost children, who have come to life from the creative nonfiction book (of Luiselli's invention) Elegies for Lost Children, “loosely based on” yet universalized out from the historical Children's Crusade (Luiselli 2019a: 139). The excerpts from Elegies included in the text, which both the mother and the boy read, narrate the early parts of the lost children's harrowing journey across Mexico on La Bestia, the terrifying freight train upon which refugees precariously ride, clinging to the roof, as they migrate to the US border. In this sentence, however, the children are no longer fictional composites, but rather embodied characters moving through the same desert timespace and reality as Swift Feather and Memphis.
Early in the sentence, one of the children, a six-year-old boy who in Elegies remembers his grandfather catching lobsters by the sea, dies. The sentence narration then breaks for the first and only time from following either set of children: the narrator tracks instead the discovery of the boy's remains and the conversion of his death into data: into a “red x” on a migrant mortality map like the one the mother narrator keeps in her archive box, which doubles as a record of the materials Luiselli used to write the novel. The sentence moves to occupy the perspective of a “methodical old lady” who, presumably in her capacity as a volunteer for the nonprofit organization responsible for generating the migrant mortality maps, “sits in front of a computer in a small office, every weekday, sipping iced coffee from a reusable straw while she waits for the monitor to boot up” in order to record the boy's death on a desert map:
death marks over fucking everything, the lady mutters between her teeth, because the map of that desert valley, the Sulphur Springs Valley, which is exactly the same but also not the same desert valley right outside her small, dark, but well-air-conditioned office, is speckled with hundreds of red dots, all of them added manually, one by one, by her, the lady who is never late for work, and sips from reusable straws in order not to pollute, and sits up straight in front of the computer monitor while she listens on her earphones to an only mildly pornographic but rotundly moralistic lesbian romance novel written by author Lynne Cheney, titled Sisters, not at all oblivious to the fact that the author of the novel is the wife of the ex – vice president Dick Cheney, who, under President George W. Bush, directed “Operation Jump Start,” during which the National Guard was deployed along the border and a twenty-foot cement wall was erected across part of the desert, passing just a few miles from her office, which itself is nothing but a small rectangle walled off from that disgusting desert by just a meager adobe wall and a thin, single-leaf aluminum door, under the crevice of which the hot, relentless wind drags the last notes of all the desert worldsounds disseminated across the barrenlands outside, sounds of twigs snapping, birds crying, rocks shifting, footsteps trudging, people imploring, voices begging for water before fading into silence with a final whimper, then darker sounds, like cadavers diminishing into skeletons, skeletons snapping into bones, bones eroding and disappearing into the sand, and none of this the lady hears, of course, but somehow she senses all of it, as if sound particles were stuck to the sand particles blown by the desert wind into the faux grass of her welcome mat, so that every day before stepping into her office, she has to take her mat and hit it against the external adobe wall of the office, dust it off with three or four hard slaps against the wall, until all those annoying sand particles are blown back into the desert air, back to the streams and currents of the desert air's unfiltered sounds carried eternally across empty valleys, sounds unregistered, unheard, and finally lost unless by chance they happen to spiral into the small conch-shaped sockets of human ears, such as those of the lost children . . . (Luiselli 2019a: 323 – 24)
Here the “methodical old lady” is characterized as the most dependable and liberal of data care laborers: “sit[ting] up straight,” “never late for work,” environmentally conscious, disturbed by the horrific needless death of refugee children, precise in her work of recording each death that might otherwise go unnoticed. Yet her careful solidarity work of data entry is a practice of attention that proceeds against the background soundtrack of a conservative Western romance audiobook, while excluding the excruciating “desert worldsounds” that render the deaths of the migrants more than a “red dot” on a map. The woman cannot hear these sounds—her headphones are on—and what of them she intuits, she purges daily as she enters the office, ruthlessly thwapping the “welcome mat” clean from the debris of death in the name of preserving domestic order against the wild force of the desert.
This scene exposes the insufficiency of data entry as care work and liberal volunteer solidarity archival practice: how the myopic attention to rendering migrant death in a form that can be counted and accounted for by the US state, media, and nonprofit industrial complex still allows migrant lives to disappear, “unregistered and unheard.” It illustrates too how the task of marking off dead migrants as x's on a map mirrors border security's own data-making sign-cutting practices, particularly through shared investment in frontier fantasy. The “methodical old lady” is “not at all oblivious to the fact” that the Western quasi-lesbian romance novel to which she is listening is written by Lynne Cheney, wife of Dick Cheney, one of the architects of the Bush administration's attempt to build a border wall and wage a broader imperialist war articulated through the iconography of patriotic US cowboys fighting “Indians” of the “Wild West” remade as contemporary terrorists (Bruyneel 2016). But Cheney's novel remains the soundtrack to the old lady's solidarity work: a novel that fits right in with the sadomasochistic-billionaire permutations of romance fiction that are so popular among Amazon authors and readers (McGurl 2016; Broulliette 2019). The novel stars widowed publishing magnate heroine Sophie, unashamedly on the side of the “monopolists,” who eventually marries her murdered sister's cattleman husband despite his penchant for physical and sexual violence and his support for lynching as a tool for securing the power of cattle ranch dynasties like his own: “He'd defended lynching, rule by vigilante—she knew that was wrong. But still . . . would she want him if she could sway him on every point? Probably not. It sounded dreadfully dull” (Cheney 1981: 214). The novel's staging of the struggle between warring cattle owners erases Indigenous peoples, except for Sophie's Shoshone grandmother, whom Cheney imagines as happily fulfilled catering to her fur-trapper husband. This settler frontier fantasy also effaces Indigenous relations to the land. Described as “emptiness . . . unbroken to the horizon” (Cheney 1981: 1), Cheney's prairie is not so different than the “disgusting desert” of LCA's old lady's world, warded off by “a meager adobe wall and a thin, single-leaf aluminum door,” the domestic counterpart of the “twenty-foot cement [border] wall.” The romance of the frontier tradition, with its scripts of the frontier as a site of white male regeneration, imperial consolidation, and “manifest domesticity” (Kaplan 2002), remains a structuring seductive fantasy.
The protagonists of LCA share with their author a desire for an alternative to the compromised care labor of data entry, imbricated as it is with the violent data regime of the border that is itself articulated through frontier fantasy. They imagine that recording “unfiltered sounds,” such as the “desert world sounds” listed above, might produce an alternative archive for the children subject to the past and present violence of the US settler colonial capitalist state, an archive that might register not just their disappearances, but the shape of their presences. But just as Tell Me How It Ends elaborates the restrictions of the generic forms of US state bureaucracy and journalistic narrative, LCA critiques the underlying forms that structure the protagonists’ counterproposals of an “inventory of echoes” and a “lost children archive.” These forms similarly haunt the West-bound road trip narrative of the novel itself, inscribing a continued attachment to the epistemological and racial settler fantasies of the Western and the frontier.
Key for Luiselli's relationship to the Western, and the Western frontier road novel more specifically, is the practice of reenactment. During a family road trip in the summer of 2014, the trip during which Luiselli began writing LCA, Luiselli's family stopped in Tombstone, a mythologized Old West – styled Arizona town where townspeople stage reenactments of Wyatt Earp's final shootout for tourists. In an essay describing the experience, Luiselli locates her unease with the Tombstone reenactments in their selective performance of history, and their heady mixture of disavowal and retrenchment of settler colonial logics of race, sovereignty, and territoriality. Wild West reenactments, she writes, constitute “a Manichean representation of good (white) lawmen vs. bad (white) cowboys, which is ultimately a celebration of the founding of white America,” while eliding “the rest—the part about killing or banishing non-white others in order to defend claimed land.” This elision persists, she explains, even as nearby “civilian border patrollers” reenact that history of genocide, exercising a commitment to the “myth of the frontier, . . . the idea of a place at the very edge of civilization that needs to be conquered and tamed and then guarded—with guns or with walls—against potential invaders” (Luiselli 2019c).
These reenactments thus evidence the “lasting logic” of the US frontier imaginary (Byrd 2014: 151), particularly its sustaining fantasy of “regeneration through violence” (Slotkin  2000: 5), a form of rejuvenation that often involves the white male settler adoption of Indigeneity as a strategy for relieving their existential boredom while destroying the lives of Indigenous peoples (Saldaña-Portillo 2016: 9 – 11). Luiselli's (2019c) essay emphasizes the continuing power of these structures in relation to the United States’ legal and extralegal policing of the border, insisting that ongoing Wild West reenactments have “real consequences,” as the reenactments constantly threaten to “perform back into existence” forms of genocidal violence that to some might seem past and gone. These “real consequences” prompt Luiselli in LCA to engage with the frontier through ambivalent thematizations of reenactment: the family road trip West spurred by the husband's twin pursuit of Apache echoes and career rejuvenation; the mother narrator's attention to “the chaos of history repeated, over and over, reenacted, reinterpreted” (Luiselli 2019a: 146); the parents’ attempts to pass themselves off as screenwriters of a spaghetti Western to a “man with a hat and gun tucked tight into his belt” by translating the seven-hour Hungarian art film Sátántangó into “a Western key” (130–31); and the mother narrator's epiphany that her children's constant “reenactment” (155) of the US settler state's dispossession of the Apaches and Central American children's forced migration might “produce historical understanding” and even an archive of the “soundmarks, traces and echoes that lost children left behind” (144).
One way to parse the novel's relationship to frontier reenactment is through its relationship to the genre of the road novel-cum-Western, indexed most prominently in the text of Jack Kerouac's countercultural autofictional novel On the Road.5On the Road's famous bromance between narrator Sal and his “sideburned hero of the snowy West” (Kerouac  2002: 3) Dean Moriarty enacts white male countercultural rebellion against the post – World War II liberal norms of domestic containment, norms that propped up white men's prosperity and power but nonetheless left them feeling stifled by the pressure to embody the masculinity-and-freedom-sapping mold of the cookie-cutter “organization man” subject to the henpecking of his domineering suburban housewife (May 1999). Kerouac's novel illustrates the white male postwar imagination's use of the frontier to rebel against the perceived deadening force of liberal state bureaucracy and suburban and corporate conformity without ever giving up the power those structures afforded. The novel begins by staging Sal's “miserably weary split-up” (Kerouac  2002: 1) and thus his flight from bourgeois domesticity (though his road trip is subsidized by his aunt's labor and money) into homosocial and variously criminal adventures with Dean. Sal imagines these adventures as rooted in “a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy; it was Western, the west wind, an ode from the Plains, something new, long prophesied, long a-coming” (7 – 8), a characterization that renders them, as Molly Geidel (2015: 39) writes, as the “forward-looking recuperation of frontier wildness that Kerouac explicitly contrasts with the ‘white ambitions’ of the new managerial class.”
As Alex Trimble Young (2013: 130 – 31) indicates, Sal is disappointed in the actual Wild West reenactment he encounters on his road trip, finding “ridiculous” the “fat businessmen in boots and ten-gallon hats, with their hefty wives in cowgirl attire, [who] bustled and whoopeed on the wooden sidewalks of old Cheyenne” (Kerouac  2002: 30). The novel's desired version of frontier reenactment takes a different form, expressed in Sal's iconic scene of racial longing, in which he walks through a Black Denver neighborhood, “wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. . . . I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a ‘white man’ disillusioned” (180). As María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo (2002: 96) describes, Sal's longing here and throughout the novel performs a “perverse” calculation in which “the racialized subject's unfreedom becomes true freedom in light of white freedom's burden of bringing and preserving civilization.” Sal's longing for frontier freedom in the form of becoming a “Denver Mexican” is also a practice of what Philip Deloria (1999) names “playing Indian,” given that Mexicans emerge in the novel, in contrast to the United States, as embodiments of enduring Indigeneity and anti-modernity: “These people were unmistakably Indians and were not at all like the Pedros and Panchos of silly civilized American lore—. . . . They were the source of mankind and the fathers of it” (Kerouac  2002: 280). For this reason, Saldaña-Portillo (2016: 2 – 3) names On the Road as articulating and to some degree scripting the “conventional iteration of the racial difference between the United States and Mexico,” in which “Mexico is a ‘specific elsewhere’ ” of romanticized Indigeneity in contrast to the overcivilized United States. The power of On the Road's script, she elaborates, is that it is reenacted even as it is reversed in recent accounts of border violence: “Mexico, still indigenous, is now the scene of barbarous crime, while the United States, still nonindigenous, is the passive recipient of its drugs and immigrants” (6). Since the late twentieth century, this characterization has extended to encompass Central America, such that the crossing of the US-Mexico border by Indigenous Central American refugees often results in “the disavowal of [their] Indigenous heritage,” casting them as expellable “foreigners” in contrast to settlers reimagined as “native” (Saldaña-Portillo 2017: 140).
LCA loosely reenacts On the Road, traveling the same terrain geographically and thematically in order to grapple with the continuing centrality of On the Road's frontier scripts. Just as Sal flees bourgeois domesticity for the rejuvenating possibility of the road West, the family's road trip is precipitated by the husband's desire to flee his marriage for the Southwest in order to pursue “his own documentary project, about the Apaches,” in which he planned to record “an ‘inventory of echoes,’ . . . about the ghosts of Geronimo and the last Apaches” (Luiselli 2019a: 21). This decision is born from the chasm between the couple's approaches to their shared vocational practice of documenting sound. The narrator characterizes her husband as a “documentarian,” as opposed to a “documentarist” like her, a distinction that describes how he privileges his so-called artistic autonomy and the autonomy of sound. Imagining himself as uncompromised by the demands of funders or journalistic practices, the husband looks down on the narrator for her “apparent lack of greater aesthetic principles,” her dedication to “a direct attack on issues” rather than his “sampling echoes, winds, and birds” in service of abstract “aesthetic theories about sound and its reverberations” (99 – 100).
The husband's plan to leave his marriage to pursue his “inventory of echoes” thus represents a Kerouacian rejection of the stifling compromises of domesticity that are associated with selling out to capitalism and aesthetic conformity, as well as a concomitant quest to find the fetishized disappeared Indian. His “inventory of echoes” project does not quite share Kerouac's romance of anti-modernity, nor is it quite a reiteration of the salvage ethnographic impulse of turn-of-the-twentieth-century white scientists and artists who saw recorded sound as a “privileged repositor[y]” for the Indigenous cultures they believed were destined for extinction (Hochman 2014: xv, xiii, xvi). For the husband, according to his wife's generous interpretation, making an “inventory of echoes” means to “record the sounds that now, in the present, travel through some of the same spaces where Geronimo and other Apaches, in the past, once moved, walked, spoke, sang” (Luiselli 2019a: 141). His object is thus not to collect “sounds that have been lost,” but rather to “capture their past presence in the world, and mak[e] it audible, despite their current absence, by sampling any echoes that still reverberate of them” (141); the project is meant to find traces of past warrior Apache chiefs in the world that remains. Yet one might ask of both the husband and the novel, as many readers have: what of living Apache people? Why should the echoes of Geronimo and the Eagle Warriors be found along the spatial coordinates of their imprisonment and death and faint memorialization by the settler state? The husband's choice to “illuminate an area of the map, a soundscape in which Geronimo once was” (141) inchoately registers how the Apaches’ nineteenth-century struggle against both the new Mexican nation and the expansionist US settler state stemmed from the United States’ failure to honor the sovereignty of Indigenous people, as well as Mexico's refusal as a new liberal nation-state to “accommodate indigenous political and economic spatial practices” (Saldaña-Portillo 2016: 128). Importantly for the mother narrator, it registers as well the continuity between Indian removal and the deportation of Central American and Mexican (often themselves Indigenous) refugees. But the husband's archival practice nonetheless further inscribes the cartography of the US settler state, as well as a flattened vision of Indigenous life. In the stories he narrates to his children, Geronimo and the Apaches become the noble heroes of struggle against the “white eyes,” locked in a plot that reduces Indigenous motivations and epistemologies to romantic narratives of resistance, narratives of the kind Saidiya Hartman (2008: 9) warns against in her writing on the archive of Black enslavement; such stories offer “consolation” to the contemporary readers of archives while further erasing past lives.6
In this way, the husband's pursuit of the echoes of Geronimo and other Apache leaders also functions as a personal indulgence; he uses a romanticized history of Indigenous resistance to imagine his own freedom of movement, a freedom that, the novel subtly conveys, is more available to him than to his wife. The novel withholds the specifics of his racial and ethnic identity, though he “tells an inquisitive stranger in a diner [in Oklahoma] that he was also born in the south” (Luiselli 2019a: 129); meanwhile his wife is queried menacingly by strangers “about [her] accent and place of birth” and identifies her own Mexican heritage as one of mestizaje (129, 16). Subtle details point to the husband's status in relation to the US state apparatus being more secure than hers: she has to translate Spanish for him; she uses a passport to identify herself to the authorities, in contrast to his ability to wield only his driver's license (73, 136). The husband's unmarked affiliation positions him as the settler subject in the text who can make it his personal quest to inventory the echoes of the Apaches who have captured his imagination, as well as participate in the rejuvenating redfacing characteristic of the frontier tradition. He encourages his children to “play the Apache game” with him: to don their fantasy of Apache garb (cotton belt tied around the head for an “Indian princess”), to wield props like a “plastic bow and arrow,” and to play-act the “taking over Texas, defending it from the American army, handing it over to their Apache fellows, and fencing it off” (67). When the children decide to bestow upon their family faux-Apache war names, he is audibly moved when they name him “Papa Cochise” after the chief he admires most (108).
The novel comments on and negates the husband's desire to reenact On the Road's white masculine frontier politics by refusing the clean break of divorce. The husband's wife and children accompany him on his expedition, and the book details the long, slow dissolution of their marriage and their family, a quotidian domestic drama of family separation running parallel to the larger-scale and yet still quotidian violence of the family separations playing out at the US-Mexico border. On the Road is included in one of the husband's banker boxes of research materials: “Box III,” the mother narrator describes, “which at first glance seems like an all-male compendium of ‘going a journey,’ conquering and colonizing: Heart of Darkness, The Cantos, The Waste Land, Lord of the Flies, On the Road, 2666, the Bible” (Luiselli 2019a: 43). When the parents scroll through their audiobooks in the car, looking for something to drown out the news stories of the missing child refugees, their discussion of On the Road further illuminates the novel's inchoate critique. The husband imagines On the Road as “a perfect choice” for their trip, given that whether or not the children understand it, the “rhythm” of the prose will be “enjoyable,” his sense of the sound of the sentences entirely divorced from the frontier ideology they convey. The narrator understands Kerouac's prose to be more insidious in its appeal. She recalls experiencing it first as an “infinite bowl of lukewarm soup,” before it grew on her, Kerouac eventually charming her with “his untidy way of tying sentences together.” But she nonetheless tells her husband:
I would rather listen to evangelical radio than to On the Road.
Why? he asks.
It's a good question, so I look for a good reason. My sister, who teaches literature in Chicago, always says that Kerouac is like an enormous penis, pissing all over the USA. She thinks that his syntax reads like he's marking his territory, claiming inches by slamming verbs into sentences, filling up all silences. I love that argument, though I don't know if I quite understand it, or if it's even an argument. So I don't put it forward. We're approaching a tollbooth, and I dig around for spare change. We halt, pay a machine—not a person—and drive on. Kerouac's America is nothing like this America, so bony, desolate, and factual. I use the distraction to move beyond our Kerouac discussion, a dead-end street, no doubt. And as we gain speed again, I scroll down and press Play on the next audiobook. (76)
Here the narrator cannot explain her critique of On the Road beyond her aesthetic preference for evangelical radio—an observation that suggests she would prefer upfront reactionary politics to Kerouac's seductive exercise of homophobic misogyny in the spirit of unbridled frontier freedom, his sloppy Western fantasy that cannot capture the “bony, desolate, and factual” world before her. But her sister's academic analysis links the narrator's own sense of Kerouac's participation in the “conquering colonizing” male journey narrative to the territorializing power of his syntax. Her sister's identification of Kerouac as “an enormous penis, pissing all over the USA” theorizes Kerouac as a pioneer of autofiction, while marking Luiselli's text's relation to recent autofictional works by Ben Lerner (2014) and Rachel Cusk (2018) that feature pivotal scenes of white men peeing. These scenes seem to characterize such territory-marking rituals (in the Cusk novel the man pees in the water, near where the protagonist swims; in the Lerner novel the peeing man is known only as “the occupier”) as on the one hand connected to the flowing autofictional tradition associated with Kerouac, and on the other naturalized as an inevitable, if sometimes unpleasant, male practice, the inexorable drive to sully and claim and mark everything.
LCA attempts to alter this Western autofictional aesthetic practice by way, again, of reenactment. As he rides in the back seat, the boy absorbs from his father the Western frontier tradition, but also the importance of remembering Indigenous names and histories: how “Geronimo and his band,” refusing to “surrender to the white-eyes and their Indian Removal Act,” were forcibly marched across the desert, “crammed into a train car and sent east, far away from everything and everyone,” and then not long after, “crammed back into a train car and sent to Fort Still, where most of them died out, slowly” (Luiselli 2019a: 133). “It was so important that we memorize all those names,” the boy narrates to his sister, “because otherwise we would forget, like everyone else had already forgotten, that the Chiricahuas were the greatest warriors there were on the continent, and not some weird species that lived in the Museum of Natural History next to the petrified animals” (206). And so when the novel stages its own scenes of open-air male urination, reenacting the staple of the Kerouacian autofictional Western, the boy pees not in order to claim territory—though this by-product is an inescapable result of the reenactment—but in a clumsy attempt at homage and archival preservation:
I felt proud to be peeing there on the stupid wall that kept the prisoners of war locked up and removed and disappeared from the map, just like Ma used to say about the lost children, who had traveled alone and then were deported and wiped off the map like aliens. But later, inside the car looking back at the cemetery, I just felt angry because peeing on the wall wouldn't have mattered to the people who had built the wall around the dead prisoners, and then I was angry for Geronimo and for all the other prisoners of war, whose names no one ever remembered or said out loud.
And these names I remembered every time I peed out in the open like a wild beast. I remembered their names and imagined they were coming out of me, and I tried to write their initials in the dust, different ones each time, so I wouldn't forget their names and so that the ground would also remember them:
CC for Chief Cochise
CL for Chief Loco
CN for Chief Nana
S for the priest woman called Saliva
MC for Mangas Coloradas
And a big G for Geronimo. (270)
Here the boy understands “peeing on the stupid wall” to be a futile gesture—he understands that carceral settler state power will not bend to or even recognize his protest—but his initial pride comes from making the protest at all, and from recognizing how the violent forms of the settler colonial past endure in the present, in the continuity across time between the violence of Indian removal and the violence of US treatment of Mexican and Central American refugees. He puts more stock in the idea that the act of peeing the initials of the Apache warriors in the ground might help him, and also the ground, to remember them. This gesture attempts to break with the myopic conquest of Kerouac “pissing all over the USA,” but naively follows the path of his father, and the salvage ethnographers before him, in imagining himself as the preserver and conduit for the world's memory of the Apaches. The idea that living Apache peoples or land would already remember these names, without the boy's mediating body—“they were coming out of me”—doesn't occur to him. His ritual urination here attempts to upend the territorial practice of Kerouac's Western autofictional tradition, but in so doing enacts what Jodi Byrd (2014: 153) names “the continual prioritizing of an effect for a cause, of requiring the settler and the frontier rather than the indigenous as the structuring analytic through which to assess the consequences of [but also reparations for] colonialism.”
The novel is aware of this representational dilemma, voicing it through the mother's doubts about both her own archival project and the children's “playing Indian.” As she imagines trying to assemble her recordings into a legible narrative that might tell the story of the thousands of children detained at the US border “from the perspective of the children involved” (Luiselli 2019a: 20), she is plagued by a series of concerns: about the political utility of her work, about the value of didactic art, about the value of art that arrogantly eschews politics, but also about whether she can or should “make art with someone else's suffering”: “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 . . . ?” (79). Here the narrator reflects on the novel's own Kerouacian dilemma in a rephrasing—“cultural appropriation, pissing all over someone else's toilet seat”—that performs the knowledge of the link between On the Road's fantasies of Blackness and Indigeneity and the novel's thematic and syntactical “pissing all over the USA,” a link that the boy's attempt at solidarity with the Apaches cannot quite break. LCA's self-consciousness of how it too might be “colonized by the Western-Saxon-white categories” and genres that the novel nonetheless feels bound to work through, repeats in the narrator's ambivalence about the children's “backseat games.” In these games, the children enact their fantasies of Apache resistance to the “white eyes” and play at being the “lost” child refugees, trying to find their way to safety across the desert. The narrator recognizes these games as problematic, “as silly and frivolous because—because what do they know about lost children, about hardship or hopelessness or getting lost in deserts? . . . Their game is irresponsible and even dangerous” (155). Despite her reservations, however, the narrator appreciates her children's ability to rewrite history, to “combine” and “confuse” the stories of “the last of the Chiricahuas” and “the child refugees at the border,” to craft “possible endings and counterfactual histories” (75). She decides, despite the risk of cultural appropriation, that her children's blurring of their received knowledge of Apache Eagle Warrior children with their understandings of beleaguered child refugees into pantomimes of intense imaginative identification might in fact constitute a desirable archival practice, one that captures the echoes of the detained, deported, and disappeared Mexican and Central American child refugees. “Maybe any understanding, especially historical understanding,” she muses, “requires some kind of reenactment of the past” (180).
The narrator becomes convinced of this idea—that her “children's backseat games and reenactments were maybe the only way to really tell the story of the lost children” (180)—because she senses something mystical in childhood play. Her children's play, she suggests, has the power to dissolve the “rational, linear, organized world,” to “break the normality of that world, tear the veil down, and allow things to glow with their own, different inner light” (179). This vision of childhood returns us to Luiselli's struggle with the formal dilemmas produced by the constraints of the reductively cruel bureaucratic form, racist media narratives, and a literary industry complicit in border surveillance and policing. The children's acts of “playing Indian/refugee”—performances that consitute what Diana Taylor (2003: 20 – 21) names “repertoire,” the “embodied practice” of cultural memory and knowledge transmission—hold for the narrator the possibility of challenging settler colonial capitalism's violent bureaucratic and discursive order. While the questionnaire and the media fix Mexican and Central American children “as juridical subjects, as an impure matter on which American power will be exercised,” “as illegitimate children with illegitimate claims” (Milian 2018: 16, 17), the children's “reenactment play” seems to somehow access the stuttering story behind the data, to allow discrete historical moments of dispossession to touch across time and space. Yet of course this vision of childhood play as an imaginative repertoire that might pierce the “veil” of the adult world is not divorced from settler fantasy. It evokes the “long history” Deloria (1998: 106) describes of the figures of child and the Indian “being paired rhetorically as natural, simple, preliterate, naïve, and devoid of consciousness,” as well as the Kerouac-inflected Western tradition of engaging in cross-racial play in order to rebel against bureaucratic state and capitalist control.
In its climactic long sentence, Lost Children Archive plays out both the possibilities and the dangers of the children's imaginative play. Swift Feather and Memphis, who are always “pretending to be lost children, having to run away, either fleeing from white-eyes, riding horses in bands of Apache children, or riding trains, hiding from the Border Patrol” (Luiselli 2019a: 172) become lost children themselves, lost in the desert on their trek towards Echo Canyon. The long propulsive roving sentence refuses the temporality of punctuation and brings the lost children, fictional, then real, and Swift Feather and Memphis to meet at last in the “unreal desert,” “among the echoes of other children, past and future, who kneeled, laid down, coiled into a fetal position, fell, got lost, did not know if they were alive or dead inside that vast hungry desert” (328). They share a meal of eagle eggs and Swift Feather sleeps fitfully until he realizes “the Eagle Warriors [the Apache child warriors his father told them stories about] had been there with us all this time . . . and we were safe thanks to them” (335). When he wakes, the lost children are gone, the line between them and the Indigenous warrior children past, subject to forced relocation by the violent settler state, blurred once again. Memphis, meanwhile, has traded away to the lost children almost all of their possessions—compass, map, backpack, flashlight, even Elegies for Lost Children—for a bow and arrow and two stray hats, as if she understands that while she and Swift Feather will be reunited with their parents, the lost children may stay lost; her trade is as practical a gesture of solidarity with the lost children, present and past, as a five-year-old might manage.
Yet for all the whimsical mysticism of this encounter between children lost among the echoes of the dead and dying, this scenario is also another reenactment of On the Road. Kerouac's ( 2002: 289) fetishizing of abject racial and Indigenous others becomes too much for him in Mexico, when the “ache and stab” of intermingled “love” and bodily suffering sends him running home. Similarly, here the novel spins out how the parents’ romantic settler fantasies about the possibilities of Indigenous identification and role-play, the mythologized overidentification with the contemporary Mexican and Central American refugee and historical Apache children that they encourage (or don't discourage) in their children, sends those children headlong into danger. The novel can't quite sustain this critique of frontier Western fantasy to what might be its most brutal end—Swift Feather and Memphis don't die or disappear, but rather are safely reunited with their parents in Echo Canyon. Yet the novel also refuses to allow their redfacing repertoire to produce the old standby of settlers transforming the frontier into the happy homestead, fortified by their “transit” through Indigeneity (Byrd 2011), or the usual happy ending of the Central America solidarity novel, in which the performance of the suffering sacrificial refugee becomes a vehicle for reconsolidating the family (Stuelke, forthcoming).7 Here the husband and wife break up, the children are separated by the continent.
While the children are lost in the desert, the boy dreams. In his dream, he is the Apache Eagle Warrior child Lozen,
leading her people away from a band of what could have been soldiers or paramilitaries dressed in nineteenth-century traditional bluecoats but holding wild guns, and huddling them all into an abandoned train car, where he starts hearing, with the repetitive obsessiveness of nightmares, a line delivered histrionically, when he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night, over and over again, the same sentence never completed, when he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night, until the boy opens his eyes suddenly, wrenches himself up, and reaches out to touch his sister sleeping beside him. (Luiselli 2019a: 335)
Interrupting the historical palimpsest of the boy's unconscious, linking the violence of the US settler capitalist state across time, is the refrain of the first sentence of Cormac McCarthy's postapocalyptic Western novel The Road. It is a sentence that has haunted the family's road trip, echoing in the car every time the mother plugs in her phone before she can select the correct audiobook to play, carrying with it “an unforgettable portrait of the contemporary family as the smallest unit of the security state” (Morgenstern 2018: 74). The dream of solidarity, of identification and child play across sovereign difference as a solution to the banal evils of the xenophobic carceral settler state, is haunted by the seemingly never-ending echo of the Western road narrative. The last chapter of LCA is narrated by the boy, who leaves his sister a recording and photographs, an archive of his own, in hopes she will remember their journey, in hopes they will meet again. He tells her to reach for the stars, a reminder of the David Bowie song they both love, about astronauts separated by the vastness of space, the final frontier: “Two, one: and you're launched into space. You're up in space, floating in a most peculiar way. Up there, the stars look really different. But they're not. They're the same stars, always” (Luiselli 2019a: 350).
Luiselli's novel is one among a growing set of contemporary novels that demonstrate similar archival interests, including Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer (2015), Rodrigo Rey Rosas's Human Matter (2009), and Mat Johnson's Pym (2012). On the antecedent “archival sensibility” of twentieth-century Black literature, see Cloutier 2019; on the Latin American archive novel, see González Echevarría 1990.
Here I build on work by Eric Bennett (2015) and others who argue that our understanding of the preceding Program Era (McGurl 2009) must take into account the relationship between the creative writing program and US imperialism.
On the current and potential future surveillance technology used by the Border Patrol, see Ghaffary 2020.
This reading is inspired by Anne Boyer's (2019: 51) analysis of the hospital as another scene where “the labor of care meets the labor of the data.”
I suggest here that Luiselli uses On the Road (as well as The Road) as a means of grappling with the US road novel tradition more broadly; this is consistent with Ronald Primeau (1996: 26) and subsequent scholars’ treatments of On the Road as widely influential and even paradigmatic of the US twentieth- and twenty-first-century road novel. Kerouac's novel establishes a blueprint for the US road novel as a form that, as Ann Brigham (2015: 9) argues, cements automotive “mobility” as “a process for transforming subjectivity and space” in relation to settler colonialism, racial capitalism, and racialized and gendered nationalisms. Though beyond the scope of this essay, Luiselli's grappling with the road novel might also be contextualized in relation to Mexican filmmakers’ recent uses of the road film to “navigate the depth of [transnational] neoliberal catastrophe” that traverses Mexico and the United States post-NAFTA (Sánchez Prado 2016: 55) and extends to Central America, especially post-CAFTA (Saldaña-Portillo 2017).
Saldaña-Portillo (2016: chaps. 2 and 3) also indicates how progress narratives of heroic anticolonialism can obscure the specific workings of Spanish colonialism and liberal nationalism, as well as Indigenous negotiations with them.