:: Article

Lost Artifice: A review of Lost Empress by Sergio De La Pava

By Brian Birnbaum.

Lost Empress review

Sergio De La Pava, Lost Empress (Pantheon, 2018)

For those unaware of Sergio De La Pava’s improbable ascension, the Manhattan defence attorney’s mammoth debut, A Naked Singularity, espoused the highest of literary aspirations with irrefutably fun storytelling. Yet when querying agents back in the early 2000s, De La Pava was met with the literary industry’s inability to understand that salable fiction isn’t necessarily accessible fiction. He spent three years querying the novel, receiving over ninety rejections, before shelving it – until his wife, Susanna, also a city DA, published the novel herself. It sold thousands of copies and got picked up by the University of Chicago Press, where De La Pava published his second novel, Personae.

Speaking of improbable ascensions, De La Pava’s third novel, Lost Empress, set in dilapidated Patterson, NJ, follows the rise of the Indoor Football League (IFL). As if transitioning from Personae, which also experiments with script format, Empress begins by employing playscript to follow the impossibly competent Nina Gill – art collector, unapologetic progressive and heir to the enormous Gill fortune, which includes the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys franchise. Yet she soon learns during an estate settlement that her brother, Daniel, will inherit the Cowboys, despite her pivotal role played in the franchise’s success. Furthermore, Daniel is steering the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement toward player lockout. As consolation, Nina is bequeathed the Patterson Pork – of the IFL – of whose existence Nina has, until now, been patently unware.

Back at her apartment, ruminating over Dalí originals, Nina commits to filling the new vacuum of professional football. Armed with her plucky if inexperienced sidekick, Dia Noveau, whom she promotes to deputy commissioner of the IFL, Nina embarks on usurping America’s preeminent football league.

On its surface, Lost Empress pays homage to the Hoosiers and the Rudys of the world; we know, as we do with all feel-good sports stories, that the Patterson Pork and the IFL are going to achieve a healthy measure of success. At its core, however, Empress is a conversation with the reader. From its informal structure to its colloquial phrasings, the novel reads more like an incredibly eloquent anecdote shared at some bar with its literary bedfellows; indeed, while his work remains somewhat vaulted, its plot turns largely implicit, its prose hyperintelligent, De La Pava’s latest is also strikingly casual in its approach.

Take, for example, how De La Pava makes fun of his own work: “In Dia’s hands are various reports while Nina reads a doorstop of a book [A Naked Singularity] with a psychedelic cover and a pitiable attempt to cash in on a sexy word.” Most writers would have trouble getting away with such implicit self-deprecation – much less in the middle of a novel – but by page 499, we’re used to being addressed, which we glimpsed during the novel’s very opening:

Let us have then, 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.

For a novel so fraught with authorial presence, Lost Empress gets a ton of mileage out of its motley cast of characters. Yet it would be an injustice to said characters, if not the novel as a whole, to try and fit them all into a review of this length. However, among the careworn residents of Paterson and those orbiting the IFL – which include 911 operators, absent fathers, loyal sons, bereaved children, incompetent medical residents, the list goes on – it’s none other than Rikers inmate Nuno DeAngeles who steals the show.

As with contemporaneous works such as Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, De La Pava’s latest novel picks off any last illusions as to the upward mobility of America’s poor, its immigrants and its otherwise marginalised population. Nuno, for his part, is a brilliantly furious soul whose heritage, and more so his time in Rikers, reveals the twisted shape of the modern American dream. Nuno functions as a dramatic example of how intelligence and talent cower before geopolitical place of birth and family pedigree. And regarding structure, Nuno’s character sets the precedent for the novel’s shift from script format to its series of hyperintelligent vignettes, which function much like a Bolaño narrative, only far more fun; because Nuno’s story isn’t satisfied with ominous specters alluding to dark enigmas, as Bolaño’s lesser work often was. No, Nuno’s in Rikers for a very specific reason: to steal a Salvador Dalí, reputedly hidden in the catacombs of Rikers Island.

Sergio De La Pava’s affinity for the absurd surprises no one possessing the slightest familiarity with his work. His debut, Singularity, set in New York, contained such elements as weeks-long sub-zero ice storms, extended forays into the life and times of boxing legend, Roberto Benitez, and hilarious dialogue tangents, including the likes of an extended bad-taco-diarrhea anecdote, which leaves readers doubled over their armchairs. With Empress, De La Pava dares to turn the absurd up to eleven – as if it he hadn’t already – with still greater narrative control.

His controlled escalation of the absurd is best displayed through Sylvester Scarletti, an unpaid intern for the NYPD’s Manhattan office who turns the transcription of 911 calls into an art form. Inexplicably, it’s generally agreed that his reproductions are masterpieces. Of the Manhattan office’s demand for Scarletti’s transcriptions, De La Pava writes, “A line would form outside his office as if to a nightclub.” Eventually, office attorneys must convince him to take on their transcriptions. Scarletti begins signing his work with ever-evolving self-generated sobriquets – Sly, SS, The Scarp, S2, etc. Hilarious for its obvious paradox – creating art from a practice whose highest ambitions (accuracy) leave no room whatsoever for creativity – the whole sequence, on the surface, seems like De La Pava returning to his best comedic tropes, the ’ole ‘bad-taco’ routine that staked his claim as one of the funniest writers alive. But Scarletti’s chapter doesn’t settle merely for high-grade comedy. In Scarletti’s reflection we see the artist. Throughout the novel, the artist is a mantel worn by its most venerated characters (including Joni Mitchell, whose oeuvre Nina compels Dia to absorb in its entirety). While Singularity’s fighter (Benitez) was a disembodied reflection of its protagonist, Casi, Empress’s entire cast acts as a finely choreographed hall of mirrors, each of them contributing in crucial ways to its thematic climax (to be touched on later).

Contained within Empress’s concentric circles of absurdity, however, is De La Pava’s earnest use of verisimilitude: true-to-life 911 call reports; reproductions of the New York City Department of Corrections Rule Book; a full rap verse; and, more generally, De La Pava’s bar-certified encyclopedia of legal knowledge. Such verisimilitude can pall after a number of pages, but for the avid purveyor of theme and motif, they represent essential insights into unwelcome realities that, more than absurd in their detail and specificity, ultimately contribute to the story’s apotheosis.

In many senses, Empress is a psychedelic take on the roman a clef, functioning as a kaleidoscopic peek into De La Pava’s life. Past Nina’s improbable accomplishments, Nuno’s character particularly reflects De La Pava’s work as a Manhattan DA, where he represents countless young men and women whose venial ‘crimes’ threaten to leave their prospects in tatters, at the hands of a so-called justice system that shuttles people into Hell frozen over by steel. Nuno’s arc – and his reason for being in Rikers in particular – is De La Pava’s opportunity to instil proper empathy for millions of imprisoned citizens, a kind of klaxon sounding off mass incarceration’s injustices and alienation. Such empathy can be summed by one paragraph in particular, which describes the viciously circular nature of not only imprisonment, but our illusions of free will as well:

Dylan Reeves’s first few free steps are not what he expected, is anything ever? What he thought would be pure elation is more like anxiety really. Thing is, routines bolster and strengthen relevant neural pathways until they become more like deep grooves. These grooves then in turn strengthen the routine in a system of reciprocal reward that can feel like constraint.

On a broader scale, the prose and structure work to explode all notion of the fictive artifice. It’s not that Lost Empress batters the fourth wall to the extent that you’re aware of its artifice; it’s that De La Pava altogether destroys the idea of the that fourth wall; the idea of a dreamlike purgatory that exists between the novel and real life. Empress treats language less like a swinging stopwatch mean to lull readers past that purgatory, and more like a permeable membrane between all notions of metaphysical possibility. Take, for instance, chapter 55’s (the chapters count down from 88, which might function as two upright lemniscates) conversational opening:

That’s the sun going down now but not the way most think. What’s happening is more like what physicists call spooky action at a distance, in the sense that the sun never appeared in Paterson that day that it might later disappear. That day’s light seemed to have no source. The sky a perfect gray as if that’s what our primary star emits. So sure, the sun had made things visible but only in a manner that made it seem as if the slight illumination were coming from within the objects and not anything external.

Yet nothing exemplifies this lost artifice better than Nuno’s time spent in Bellevue, having gone catatonic after months spent in Rikers’ solitary for ‘assaulting’ a corrections officer. What finally lifts him from his spell is an experimental physicist’s lectures on the nature of time and space. Nicknamed the Theorist, the physicist’s extended monologues are taken for the unhinged if erudite ramblings of an insane person. His lectures culminate when he claims to have been transported from an alternate reality – which we know to be our reality, identifiable by the Theorist’s accurate explanation of Super Bowl XLVI – where his wife believes he’s abandoned her. His only remaining purpose is to return to Dawn. Using the Large Hadron Collider – a real particle collider located near the Franco-Swiss border – the Theorist says, “I would, and will, level the world entire for her.”

But then, one day, the Theorist simply gets up and leaves the ward. “You’re saying he’s not a patient?” Nuno asks the ward’s head nurse. To which she replies, “Dr. Epstein is not a patient, correct.” Turns out, the Theorist – Dr. Epstein – has been engaged in an experimental research project, analysing temporal physics and the criminally insane.

The cumulative effect is to transcend the concept of genre, not merging them but jettisoning its relevance in favor of a narrative conversation between author and reader.

With Lost Empress, you’re neither hypnotised by narrative trance nor brainwashed by the author to constantly seek evidence that you’re being entranced. De La Pava does away with this unnecessary binary. Rather, he submits that we’re all in a lucid-dream state, knowing we’re dreaming and even at times feeling in control of the dream. Which is ironic. For all our novels steeped in realism or postmodernism, isn’t this a more accurate depiction of our lives? Knowing that we’re in a form of simulation, analysing it not as if we’re individuals, but a sublated plurality of sentient parts? How else to explain for common phrases such as, “I want to prove to myself…” which imply that we are and are not separate entities?

Like most great novels, Lost Empress’s aforementioned apotheosis works on two levels. At first glance it’s a story about the quest for justice, whether practical or philosophical – the NFL’s (i.e. corporate America’s) avarice, the criminal justice system itself, etc. But the deeper meaning, given to you within the novel’s  opening pages, suggests a story about the metaphysical window-dressing that comprises of our contemporary (especially Western) existentialism – not only that we live in the age of entertainment, but also that this is another of those distractions, akin to all that we do to distract ourselves as the hours pass. Like most great writers, De La Pava doesn’t prescribe a cure, but regardless of what you do with his indirect diagnosis of modern America, it sure is a hell of a read.


In 2015, Brian Birnbaum received his MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Atticus Review, The Smart Set, Potluck Magazine, The Collagist and more. He lives in Harlem with his partner and their dog, and works in communications access for the deaf and hard of hearing.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 24th, 2018.