The novel is impressive in its vigour and virtuosity, pleasing in its exuberant fancy, admirable doubtless in its commitment to questions of social justice and its indictment of the reality of the American criminal justice system with its mass incarceration.
Using comedy to expose horror and absurdity is of course as old as the novel itself, and De La Pava’s evident indignation finds what one may consider its proper style of expression in his exuberant but also savage comedy.
The novel is perhaps more of a depressive meditation on the human condition than a protest... 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... Nina’s chapters have the feel of a hip, lightly postmodern children’s cartoon... 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... 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’.
Midway through these 640 pages, the narrative picks up speed and starts to overheat... Lost Empress gives us the author as ringmaster and his characters as show ponies. No doubt a more exacting editor would have tidied the novel’s rougher edges. They might have fleshed out its inhabitants and closed off various avenues of inquiry, thereby ensuring a more coherent end product. But in so doing they would have risked breaking its spirit, short-circuiting the book’s crazed interconnectivity. Far better, on balance, to leave the thing as it is: a teeming microcosm of the American Dream and its relationship to a network of oppressive social systems. Lost Empress is zealous and unruly, jolting and uproarious; it’s all over the map. But what it lacks in rigour it more than makes up for in life.
ously this is not designed to be merely voluminous; it is also meant to be darkly funny, in a similar way to David Foster Wallace’s untrammelled verbosity. But if you didn’t crack a smile, then Lost Empress probably isn’t for you, because this is its chief mode... Complex, multistranded plotting can be satisfying, but it’s not enough to take a large, disparate cast of characters and simply bring them together. On the level of the individual, Lost Empress does little more than this... Each new person is accorded a lengthy, florid introduction, often out of proportion to their role in the novel. They might then disappear for hundreds of pages, only to pop up for a cursory appearance in the grand finale... There is, occasionally, a page or two of gold: a keenly observed account of prisoners joshing during Bible group, for example, is alive with humour and frustrated energy. And there’s an earnestness to De La Pava’s continuing project (the exposure of social injustice in America) that is impossible to fault. But this irretrievably messy novel is a clear case of heart not craft.