A condensed version of this review appeared in the ‘Books and arts’ section of The Economist’s 5th-11th May 2018 print edition, under the headline ‘Tick, tock’. It can be found online here.
On a one-way bus to Rikers Island, New York City’s infamous prison complex, Nuno DeAngeles turns his thoughts to René Descartes: “Descartes basically started that whole mind-body dualism and this is the only out he sees right now … There’s two of him and only one’s going in.” Normally strange bedfellows, Descartes and Rikers Island are not so in Sergio de la Pava’s expansive new novel, Lost Empress, a six-hundred-page melting pot of philosophy, mass incarceration, American football, and metaphysics.
When her ailing father divides up his football empire, “impossibly magnetic” Nina Gill inherits the underdog team, Paterson Pork, whilst the NFL hotshots, Dallas Cowboys, are left to her brother. She vows to take the Pork and do the unimaginable – to create her own football league and usurp the NFL, beating the Cowboys whilst she’s at it. Nina also has her eye on a different sort of prize – a long-lost painting by Salvador Dalí, hidden somewhere behind the barbed wire walls of Rikers Island. Nuno, a sensational criminal of planetary intelligence, is going to get it for her before the alternate realities of two parallel worlds converge, and Time, quite literally, runs out.
Both an apocalyptic countdown and a searing critique of the wretched underbelly of American society, Lost Empress oscillates between New Jersey and New York, hilarious surrealism and shocking reality. As in his first novel, A Naked Singularity, de la Pava (a public defender in Manhattan) displays his insider’s knowledge within a maximalist vortex in the vein of Pynchon and Wallace; courtroom transcripts sit alongside theoretical diagrams of Time and exact replications of Rikers Island’s “Inmate Rule Book”.
In-between Nina and Nuno’s narratives, many more unfold – cancerous cells unknowingly multiply in a young man’s brain, a 911 call operator reaches breaking point, Joni Mitchell is discussed beside Young Scuzzy and Gustav Mahler, and an Italian pastor attempts to bring God to the incarcerated whilst a family’s world crashes down around them.
In the midst of this narrative whirlpool lies the novel’s weakness. At times, the unapologetic intelligence of the omniscient narrator drags characters along with it, blurring the distinctions between their voices. This is outweighed, however, by de la Pava’s humane insight, which is arrestingly affective. When a character struggles to buy an air-conditioning unit, we read: “although every single person she mentioned it to was quick to say that window units had become very affordable all this did was highlight how a nebulous concept like affordable can vary wildly depending on its user.”
Lost Empress does not paint a pretty picture. With messianic fervour, de la Pava exposes society’s marginalised voices and the horrors behind America’s mass incarceration – horrors which the novel’s footballing thrill and apocalyptic crescendo propel us through with ghoulish addiction. Describing Nuno’s self-composed defence testimony, the narrator instructs us to “think about a literary work undertaken in the literal pursuit of freedom, which is to say life.” We do not have to think for very long; we are already reading one. In Lost Empress, de la Pava undertakes to do so on the behalf of many. As the novel’s closing page declares: “Everything was testimonial and all of it had been a form of melodic protest.”