American mass-incarceration is the most overt object of the ‘protest’ of this novel’s subtitle. The author, Sergio De La Pava, works as a public defender in New York City, and calls on an intimate secondhand knowledge of the many different sorrows to be found in the ripples of a single criminal case. But Lost Empress is also about other kinds of losses and limitations to human freedom. One minor character, a Colombian immigrant striving on behalf of his children, endures labour that ‘felt like a prison sentence’ or an ‘abyss’, opened up by ‘the desaturation of meaning’. He is killed in an accident early on; for his son, the grief is ‘a form of imprisonment’. The 911 switchboard operator and paramedic who respond, and the doctor who tries to save the man, in turn discover the limits of empathy as well as mortality. Hospitals are another form of prison, and so, indeed, is the biological body: ‘Just machines running out of battery power.’
The novel is perhaps more of a depressive meditation on the human condition than a protest. Most of the action takes place in the benighted town of Paterson, New Jersey, where ‘the most basic social reassurances… had faded out of view’. Violence, accidental and deliberate, ‘is what human beings do to each other. Not some human beings, not sometimes. This is what humans are,’ concludes one character. Others come to feel that ‘everything’s already a mass grave with some of the corpses dreaming of life’; that ‘the resting state of life is a kind of dull pain’; or that ‘the main thing humans are meant to do is die’.
As consolation, the reader is invited to fall in love with the two main characters. ‘Impossibly magnetic Nina Gill’ — born wealthy; terrorisingly curvaceous in middle-age — is the world’s foremost genius of American football management and, by implication, of everything else besides. ‘That magnetic guy’ Nuno DeAngeles, meanwhile, has the potential to be at least as brainy, and even more artistic — but he’s also, somehow, the most feared inmate of the notorious Riker’s Island jail complex in New York.
Both are contemptuous of others to the point of nihilism. They are most often seen either threatening people or lecturing them pedantically about the definition of ‘highest art’. But their real aloofness comes from the fact that — unlike the other characters, the residents of Paterson mired in their inherent limitations and heading for grim outcomes — Nuno and Nina are not at all realistic.
Nina’s chapters have the feel of a hip, lightly postmodern children’s cartoon. Ousted from her role at the Dallas Cowboys, she breaks into ‘celebratory dance’ in a boardroom, and daydreams about leading an army of ‘heavily armed half-monkey-half-robots’ in a war against the United States. Instead, she takes control of a novelty team called the Paterson Pork, and leads them in a quixotic challenge to the NFL.
American football is, of course, a violent sport. In ‘A Day’s Sail’, a short, charming essay available online, De La Pava used narratives of obscure boxing matches alongside a reading of Virginia Woolf to unfold a metaphor for perseverance in the face of despair. But here sport serves more as a kind of antic, distracted dance. Nuno’s story, on the other hand, revolves around the notion that someone who thinks, let alone talks, about Descartes and Shakespeare could indefinitely stare down the population of Riker’s Island. Both characters are manic creations.
Meanwhile, the supporting cast members go about their mundane business in the shadow of inevitable trauma. Emulating David Foster Wallace, De La Pava dives into their interior states, the casual impulse jostling with the cerebral for the reader’s attention: ‘Ever wake up after misfortune and into momentary ignorance of or at least ontological doubt re: the misfortune?’; ‘Problem is, everywhere Nelson looks he sees a transience he cannot build back into permanence.’ Unfortunately, the book is also awash with tautology: ‘vestigial remains’; ‘linearly straightforward’; ‘referential citations’; ‘ephemerally trivial’. The ‘Problem is’ tic — sentences beginning ‘Point is,’ ‘Truth is,’ ‘Fact is’ — also becomes a bit of a problem itself.
There is one sustained passage of great writing, a discrete chapter in which the stoned-email prose style mysteriously drops away. It begins: ‘On that block in Paterson there’d lived an amputee.’ And proceeds from there, bleakly, but exquisitely observed and measured. Later on, its protagonist is killed by a random brain tumour, without his having made even an indirect connection to Nina or Nuno.
Those two have ‘that presence thing that can make you question little concepts like reality and human limitations’, in the words of one character. The mere juxtaposition — that presence thing — is the key. It isn’t quite satisfying, but the world is ‘a play written by an unmedicated schizophrenic’, after all. And ‘this playwright cares not the slightest fuck for our notions of appropriate storytelling’.