Great novel, inventive, ambitious, fun. It’s a bit wordy and convoluted, but still, one of the best I’ve read this year.
First, the subtitle is definitely meaningful – pay attention. There is a Prologue, but the story really kicks off with Chapter 88. Odd, yes, but with a point – it’s like a countdown and increases tension in itself but there’s more. And we have the best opening lines since “A screaming comes across the sky,” (Pynchon Gravity’s Rainbow) or “Now single up all lines” (Pynchon again from Against the Day):
Lost Empress (a protest)
by Sergio de la Pava
2018 / 624 pages (Kindle)
read by full cast 19h 3m
rating 9.5 / contemp fiction
(both read and listened)
From Lost Empress;
“Let us then have, in these pages, an entertainment.”
And indeed the book is, truly, an entertainment in the very best sense of the term. And de la Pava goes on with the paragraph:
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.” –
What a super way to open. It lends the old meaning to the term “novel.” Okay, so it is rather far-fetched
I read de la Pava’s first book, A Naked Singularity (link to my review on this site) and was totally enamored, finding it to be one of the best books I read all last year (2017). But in some ways, Last Empress surpasses that. So what am I to say now?
Okay – so it doesn’t quite start out quite that hot. It took me awhile to get into it because there are so many characters each apparently leading their own weird and separate lives but eventually each a part of a plot thread.
Changes in plot thread usually alternate with the chapters, but occasionally appear rather abruptly. And then there’s the third person narrator interjecting bits and pages( of meditative wisdom or hilarity as needed, sometimes at length. This narrator also addresses the reader directly from time to time.
Meanwhile, some of the dialogue is written like a play script breaking up the narrative nicely and drawing more focus to the characters. There are also 911 (emergency) transcripts (including nonsense code which is not reproduced in the audio version), some excerpts from the Riker’s Island Inmate Rule Book, journal entries, and so on.
The main characters: The following list gives you a kind of sense of the general plot – an NFL strike precipitates the formation of a stronger IFL which is owned by one Nina Gill whose brother owns the Texas Cowboys. Her sidekick, Dia Nouveau is involved in everything. Meanwhile, Nuno DeAngeles, a brilliant but very unfortunate thug, is charged with getting Nina a copy of an old Salvador Dali print hidden on Riker’s Island. There are several more secondary threads including a professor of theoretical physics and various EMT units.
Nina Gill is perhaps the star protagonist because of her “tall, thick, impossibly magnetic” self which de la Pava presents in all its smart-mouthed glory. She is already wealthy, but has been unfairly deprived of her father’s legacy football team (the Cowboys) in his will. Nina knows football and men and many other things but instead of inheriting the Cowboys, she becomes the owner of the Pork, the Indoor Football League (IFL) team of Paterson New Jersey. She spends much of her time in the book collecting a team. Nina is also a collector of the works of Salvador Dali which is important.
Daniel Gill, Nina’s accountant-minded brother who unfortunately did get the Cowboys in their father’s will. There will be a strike. N
Nuno DeAngeles, a very intelligent and sneaky 18-year old inmate at Riker’s Island. Behind his facade of toughness, he’s really very human and literate. He’s in prison for his thievery and he’s angry and really only wants to leave.
Major Harris: An ex-NFL player, friend and supporter of Nina’s –
Sharon Seaborg – a 911 operator, married to an EMT, Huge Seaborg. Lives next to Feliz Heredia
Dia Nouveau – a young woman Nina grabs to act as her attorney, but is actually her “sidekick.” She’s bright and funny and occasionally stands up to Nina.
Travis Mena, MD is a very “unimpressive” young doctor with an elite background who is doing his residency at Bellevue.
Hugh Seaborg – a corrections officer at Riker’s Island, married to the 911 operator, Sharon Seaborg.
Jorge de Cervantes – parking garage supervisor – brilliant and rich now, with a wife and family (Nelson and Gisella), but questioning the meaning of his existence. He immigrated for success and he got it, but …
Nelson de Cervantes – 13-year old son of the deceased Jorge de Cervantes –
Coach Elkins – Ex Cowboys coach Nina gets for the Pork.
Larry Brown – Emergency Medical Tech and friend of Hugh.
Solomon Hanes – a Riker’s island inmate hooks up with Nuno.
Elsie Heredia – a very poor widow with an amputated leg who lives with her son, Feniz who came to the US first. They were originally from Puerto Rico but have now lived in Paterson for over 35 years. She is now in decline and hasn’t left the house for a decade.
Feniz Heredia – Elsie’s son and care-giver came to New York but landed in a mental hospital so now lives with Elsie. They tend to be pessimistic and live next to Sharon Seaborg.
Dylan Reeves – a cornerback who is in Attica prison for drug possession until paroled into Nina’s care and football team.
Sylvester Scarpetti – fatintern at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office who transcribes material perfectly and immediately and with sensitivity and “undeniable reality.”
Manu Mutola – an NFL star from years prior who is recruited by Nina.
Father Simon Ventimiglia – highly educated chaplain assigned to Paterson and Riker’s Island.
Elvis Herrera – another inmate at Rikers, not a friendly one.
Celia de Cervantes – wife of Jorge and mother of Nelson de Cervantes. s
The Theorist – in Bellevue –
The narrative goes from thoughtful to exciting to incredibly sad to silly to a bit of foreshadowing to philosophizing and so on – even theoretical physics and space-time considerations in an encyclopedic sort of way.