“What the hell is Paterson, New Jersey, anyway?” the narrator of Lost Empress asks part-way through this sprawling novel, likely on behalf of a lot of people. The literary-minded, for whom Sergio De La Pava’s demanding and entertaining book will be much fun, already know the deep answer, beyond the mere Wiki-facts of history and geography: Paterson is William Carlos Williams’s mid-century epic poem about a less-than-epic east coast American city whose fullness he embodied in one eponymous man.
Deeply well-read and equally ambitious, De La Pava has written a 21st-century successor to Williams’s effort, one that elsewhere invokes Melville, Cervantes and Saint Augustine, among many others. This is all in service of telling a story, set mostly in this rusty New Jersey town and throughout the boroughs of New York, that brings together the travails of a very obscure football team, Shakespearean sibling rivalry, ex-lovers still stuck on each other, medical school internships, therapeutic religious ministry, vehicular manslaughter and its legal and extralegal recompenses, and an art heist set in an infamous prison.
Stay back, fans of quiet domestic fiction and people who expect clear plotlines: this is a book that made me long for the comparatively easy reading of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. De La Pava is interested in both exploring and replicating the massive mess and mayhem of contemporary American life as experienced by those living at its extreme edges.
The novel’s main characters are an obscenely wealthy heiress turned entrepreneurial football mogul, Nina Gill, and a poor intellectual virtuoso turned perpetual inmate, Nuno DeAngeles. Their otherwise unimaginably separated lives, and the messy strands of the novel associated with each of them, eventually come together because of love, crime, art and football, but not before De La Pava treats of a great deal more, revolving around the very strong intersections of power, money and entertainment in the American sporting industry, and devolving around the weak intersections of fairness, dignity and redemption in the American justice system.
With so many side-plots and secondary characters pursuing their own somewhat-related gambits, not to mention extended stretches of theatrical dialogue, emergency phone-call transcripts, depositions and other legal documents that disrupt the conventional storytelling, the author has made a wise decision also to make good use of the natural logics and rhythms of a classic family conflict in concert with a classic American sport story.
At the start of the book, Nina learns that her ageing, Lear-like father has decided to bequeath his wealth to his children. Nina’s bland beta-male brother Daniel gets the crown jewel: ownership of the defending Super Bowl champions, the Dallas Cowboys NFL football team. Strong-willed and charismatic Nina is given ownership of the Paterson Pork, a terrible team in the even more terrible and entirely obscure IFL (Indoor Football League).
When the NFL decides to lock out its players for the entire season over a salary dispute, Nina sees her chance to right a wealthy family wrong and make American football great again: “Our pockets are deep and our vision is clear,” she announces in a press conference, delivered as both a new team owner and the league’s new commissioner. The IFL will make the American people forget all about the NFL by offering fans far more entertaining games, complete with mascots who duel to the point of grave injury and extreme weather conditions chosen for indoor replication, roulette-style.
Nina recruits an inexperienced but willing deputy commissioner, assorted ageing players and long-retired coaches, and comes up with all manner of fan- and media-attracting gimmickry. And, as in almost every version of this story, whether a syrupy Hollywood blockbuster or a chaotic postmodern novel, it works: the team defies all odds in winning games and fans and eventually, the Pork have a chance to play the Dallas Cowboys in “the Global Bowl”.
Meanwhile, Nuno moves from one kind of incarceration and inmate status to another, complaining along the way that his lawyers aren’t mounting as philosophically sound a legal defence as he could, for himself, and also that they have failed to provide him with original-language editions of Robert Musil and other European modernists as his leisure reading. His circulation through various courts and prisons in and around New York suggest both the convoluted and soul-grinding nature of the justice system itself, and also, his angle: Nuno’s agreed to steal a Salvador Dalí painting kept at Rikers Island prison, a “violent rip of the universe” as much physically as metaphysically, in De La Pava’s rendering.
Nuno’s motives are many, but finally come to this: Nina is a Dalí collector and her deputy commissioner Dia is Nuno’s once and maybe future love, and if he can steal the painting and escape Rikers and get it to Nina before the Global Bowl ends, maybe he has a chance to win back Dia…
And you can’t help but cheer for him, and also for the Pork. Indeed, the great achievement of Lost Empress is that its impressive feats of literary-cultural allusion, formal experiment, philosophical musing and canny satire are often balanced by, and eventually become secondary to, old-fashioned, flat-out, suspenseful story-telling. “Even its harshest critic would concede that these are good moments for the city of Paterson,” the narrator observes near the book’s genuinely exciting conclusion, and it’s worth reading this novel to discover which of Paterson’s tough and hungry people also have, at long last, a few good moments, too.
Randy Boyagoda’s new novel, “Original Prin”, will be published in 2019 by Biblioasis
Sergio De La Pava
MacLehose Press, 640pp, £20
This article appears in the 12 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The return of fascism