Lost Empress by Sergio de la Pava. Pantheon. 640pp. $29.95.
One of the most ambitious, audacious books of recent memory, Lost Empress by Sergio de la Pava brings together a smorgasbord of plot lines and scenes ranging from the serious to the comic, including: a clash between the NFL and the Indoor Football League, the history of Joni Mitchell’s career, the heist of a lost Dalí, a court case involving a high-profile murder and an incredibly intelligent inmate, the Mandela Effect, the life of a 911 operator, the origins of a brain tumor, quantum mechanics and the mind-body divide as it relates to time and consciousness, an accidental impaling and the said consequences of such as relates to the nature of getting revenge, multiple love stories that go unfulfilled, and a fight between a pig mascot and a crab one.
Unsurprisingly, this book is over 600 pages long, which, at a time in which the books garnering the most praise tend to be short, dark, and scary, feels almost like an aesthetic zag where everyone else is zigging. This is also more or less the same way that you could characterize de la Pava’s entire literary career.
For the uninitiated, de la Pava burst onto the scene about a decade ago when a few dozen readers, bloggers, and critics received a package containing the Xlibris edition of A Naked Singularity, an 800-page novel about boxing, the law, and pulling off the perfect crime. Sans marketing material, all anyone initially knew about de la Pava came from his bio: “Sergio de la Pava works as a public defender in New York City.” (His new bio includes the phrase, “author of the novels A Naked Singularity and Persona,” but no additional details.)
Again, the audacity. Here’s a public defender trying to launch his side-hustle as a writer by sending out copies of a self-published book that’s almost as long as War and Peace? Who does that?
What’s crazier though is just how good that book was. Word spread quickly among those lucky enough to receive one of these copies (disclaimer: I got one, but it’s somewhere lost in a box among boxes in either my disastrous office, or my equally disastrous basement), and within a few months, this novel, this singular, weird, wonderful novel had a pretty substantial cult following. Enough for the book to be reprinted by the University of Chicago Press.
Fast-forward a decade, and Pantheon is bringing out Lost Empress, a novel that, with de la Pava’s characteristic audacity, opens with chapter 88 and counts down to 0.
Let us then have, in these pages, an entertainment. Not strictly one, but principally so. Let wit and peals of laughter distract to the point of defiance and leave for elsewhere the desultory analysis of decay and devolution.
As mentioned above, this novel is stuffed with various plots and subplots, making it nearly impossible to summarize in a concise, satisfactory way. Getting lost in all these ideas—and all the ways in which they intersect, connect, and reflect—is one of the great joys of reading this novel.
Let’s start with one of the most ridiculous (by which I mean, incredibly improbable and anti-realistic) storylines—the fairly successful attempt of the IFL, or Indoor Football League, to supplant the NFL.
A longtime lover of American football, Nina Gill has helped her father—mega-wealthy owner of the Dallas Cowboys—to build a dynasty. Much to her surprise and dismay, her father decides to bequeath the family’s NFL franchise to her brother, who is much more concerned with the franchise’s profit possibilities than the sport itself. As a consolation prize, Nina is given the Paterson Pork, the worst team in the struggling IFL.
In an attempt to squeeze even more money out of a multi-billion dollar sport, Nina’s brother cancels the upcoming season with a lockout, giving our unflappable heroine the perfect opportunity to try and supplant the NFL’s seemingly unstoppable popularity with the maligned and dismissed IFL. This allows the strong-willed Nina, never lacking in self-confidence, to undertake the seemingly impossible mission to resurrect the IFL and make it relevant again.
A sort of Major League or Longest Yard (or maybe even better, 1st & Ten), this section of the book blends humorous interactions (especially between Nina and her sidekick Dia) with deep analysis of American football (including a breakdown of the 3-4 vs 4-3 defense) and a cursory look at the unstoppable popularity of football despite its acknowledged horrors.
American football is an odd thing to encounter in a highly literary novel—the Venn diagram of those who love football and those who read 600-page experimental works is probably not that different from a Venn diagram of Trump supporters and readers of this website—but it does make sense within de la Pava’s overall ideas about truth, rules of the game, and interactions between those with power and those without. Although one can debate sports endlessly, every (American) sporting event has a clear winner and a loser, determined by following an artificially constructed—yet explicitly detailed—set of rules. Reminiscent of the legal system in some senses, another huge plotline in Lost Empress . . .
But before moving on to the legal system side of things, it’s worth dwelling for a moment on the nature of the humor in the IFL sections. De la Pava’s humor is at its sharpest when it’s based in language, when he breaks down the gap between words that are casually used and what they actually mean, when he twists the specificity of language (such as in the Nuno sections about Rikers Island and the court system), and less when he’s depicting physical, slapstick humor. If there’s one complaint I have about this book, it’s in these sections where Nina and Dia’s dialogue gets a bit too cute, and the slapstick a bit too slapstick.
[When the only attendee at the initial IFL press conference is a very aged writer for the Paterson Palimpsest.]
. . . Nina comes out from behind the curtain and looks at the slumbering old-timer; she goes to the podium and its microphone.
[When Nina’s neighbor interrupts her late night drink-and-play-piano times.]
How exciting, are you introducing yourself to everyone in the building or just lucky me?
No, just, two things. First, piano at four in the morning?
Pianissimo at three, don’t exaggerate.
[When Nina and Dia are recruiting their quarterback—or, porkerback—to be.]
Harris has not taken his eyes off Nina. Now he is putting his finger to Dia’s lips to stop her noise then kind of softly pushing her face aside as he sits across from Nina practically in Dia’s lap. Dia tries to slide out of the way to the adjoining chair but loses her balance and flies back, her legs cartwheeling in retreat until she is splayed on the carpet to much attention.
In contrast to the hokey, almost juvenile aspect of the humor in these sections, we have the much more linguistically precise bits found in Nuno’s sections. Avoiding spoilers and trying to get to the larger point beneath the audacious madness, here’s a summary of Nuno’s story: A one-time lover of Dia’s, Nuno is a self-educated criminal who has landed himself in Rikers to enact a much larger heist. He’s brilliant, incredibly familiar with the law, tough as anyone from Oz, and always finding himself in deeper and deeper trouble.
To contrast the sort of conventional humor of Nina’s sections with the much more voice-driven humor found in Nuno’s, here’s a bit of Nuno’s discussion with Coin, his Dickensianly named lawyer:
“Wrong as wrong gets, Coin. First, they got all kinds of onerous rules in here for those of us oppressed by remand status. They’re fucking with my library access and shit. Answer me this, what kind of fucking philistine thumbs am I under that would alienate a man’s goddamn inalienable right to read?”
“I don’t think that’s a thing.”
“Speaking of which, you get those books we talked about? That I talked about and you listened?”
“Musil? Sabato? In the original German and Spanish like we agreed because translations are for pussies?”
“Oh shit, I completely forgot.”
“Who forgets something like that?”
“No, I mean that literally, Counselor. I’m curious how something like that gets forgotten. Look where I am, man, I’m starved for illumination.”
“Okay, I guess I just had no context for the request. I had never heard of either of those things.”
“Whoa, hold up, walk it back a bit. You’d never heard of Man Without Qualities or The Tunnel? Or is it you’d never heard of someone so severely downing translations, or maybe an inmate asking his lawyer for novels, which is it?”
“Never heard of any of it, at all.”
“Oh, fuck. Whose hands am I in? You have a law degree, at least you better, right?”
“Yeah, a law degree, not a lit doctor, uh, literature doctor, doctorate in literature.”
It’s this sort of Gaddis-like banter—found throughout of the book—that really sets de la Pava apart from other contemporary writers. (And I’m not even quoting the witty arguments between Nuno and the chaplain on Rikers about Jesus’s parables.) His ear for a type of speech that’s more idealized than realistic, more intellectually charming than conversational, marks all of his books to date, and is one of the real pleasures that comes with reading his work.
More than two-thirds of the way through this novel, the Theorist is introduced. Initially presumed to be a ward in the mental hospital where Nuno is confined (long story, not going to spoil it, just read this book), the Theorist breaks down ideas of space-time and quantum mechanics, arguing—via his memories of improbable Super Bowls that exist in our world but not in the one of the novel—that time is running out. Something happened when the Large Hadron Collider started up and the Giants upset the Patriots, which caused a shift in dimensions and which can only be fixed via a newly improbable football victory (the IFL over the NFL?) that’s centered on Paterson Falls (like as in William Carlos Williams’s Paterson). If only he can get to the right place, and if only the right football result can happen on the right date, then maybe the novel’s universe will replaced by a different one (ours?), allowing the Theorist to be reunited with the love of his life.
And thus, through space-time, football, insanity, and the law, these three major plot lines are bound together, with a handful of characters trying to resolve these relationships pitting an underdog against a dominant super-system.
At the very beginning of this book, Lost Empress is given a subtitle: “(a protest).” But a protest against what? A protest in favor of, or opposed to?
In each of the three storylines depicted above there’s an individual struggling against a more powerful entity—one that is disembodied and finds additional power in its inability to be confined to an individual or set of individuals. The NFL is a morally questionable organization pimping a sport that causes brain damage in a significant portion of its participants and has come under increasing scrutiny over the past few years, yet, year after year, the NFL manages to put on the most-watched television event of the year, resulting in billions of dollars of profit—far more than any other (American) sports league. The law is enacted by judges who are part of a system that is governed by an abstracted set of rules and precedents that are delineated in such a fashion as to exclude almost all sense of involvement of an actual human being. And physics—specifically time—will always crush the individual, who can never escape into a new universe, no matter how appealing that idea might seem.
And so, in the end, the protest of Lost Empress is a sort of protest song for individualism, for taking all the chances and battling the system in power, even as that system forces you into compromises, hypocritical moments, and despair. It’s a novel that wears its outrageousness on its sleeve, challenging the very notion of what a novel should be, while entertaining the shit out of its readers. For a novel that, despite the length of this review, is un-sum-up-able, Lost Empress is a book that will feel very homey to most readers of this website—a book that entertains and informs, and begs you read it again in order to better envision the scope and import of a work that so successfully undertakes such a wide pallet of ideas and emotions, opening up new possibilities for the novel, for humanity, for protest.
Chad W. Post is the publisher of Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester, where he also runs the Three Percent website.
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