Mr. de la Pava’s new book, Lost Empress, is another overstuffed portmanteau—half farce, half serious social novel, half compendium of meditations on everything from Joni Mitchell’s early albums to the superiority of football’s 4-3 defensive alignment. That’s three halves, but as with A Naked Singularity,Lost Empress feels bigger than a single book. It gives you your money’s worth ... Lost Empress can feel loose and arbitrary, and it takes a while for its many moving parts to start humming. But once this monster of a book gathers momentum, it carries the reader into a teeming, complex world guided by a logic that’s never far removed from lunacy.
So does de la Pava’s old-school autodidacticism mean that his work is uncontaminated by influence, something new under the literary sun? In most ways no, but in some important and thrilling ways yes ... The style, of course, is the extraordinary thing, as it would need to be to unite all the elements of a novel of this length and sprawl. It is colloquial in tempo yet nerdy in content, divinely detached yet intimately casual in tone, impossibly learned and improvisational at the same time. If de la Pava has a signature move, it’s to zoom out from a highly specific action or bit of characterization in order to generalize about or extrapolate from it, while still holding on to the speech-replicating sentence structures that ground that action in a kind of conversational specificity.
Boldly billing itself as 'a protest,' the book takes hold of American football and duly hot-wires it to the national grid, so that the sparks jump across a matrix that extends from stadium sport to the prison system to a shadowy criminal cartel known as the Absence. Reading it is a little like being accosted by a brilliant conspiracy theorist on the night bus home: assuming we go with the flow and ward off the occasional moments of outright exasperation, we may just come away converted ... 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 rigor it more than makes up for in life.
As well as a searing critique of American society, Lost Empress is a countdown to the apocalypse, an impending doom that rests on parallel worlds, a football pass and a biblical flood ... Mr de la Pava (a public defender) deploys his expertise in a maximalist form reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace ... With messianic fervour, he conjures up marginalised voices and the horrors of mass incarceration, against a backbeat of sporting thrills and that apocalyptic crescendo.
Sergio De La Pava’s Lost Empress begins with all the right things, interesting plot, smart dialogue, and punning wordplay but sadly, like a child’s letting go of an untied balloon, Lost Empress soon runs out of energy and falls ... Lost Empress is not satisfying for a number of important reasons: Though the premise and opening chapters do provide an entertaining explosion of wackiness and wordplay, the story and characters run out of steam, and the story essentially dulls and drags. There are a number of long and awkward sentences that break the story flow. There are too many football, criminal law, and medical references that cause the reader to pause and look up phrases that are essential to the context of the story, which again breaks the story flow. One could imagine a writer doing this for football, or law, or medicine but all three? ... This reviewer wanted to like Lost Empress, and did, but only the early chapters.
As with the author’s debut novel, A Naked Singularity (2012), the New York City criminal-justice system figures prominently, its jargon and bureaucratic instruments providing realist texture, while its absurdities and cruelties fuel the fury that is this novel’s molten core. Again we witness de la Pava’s gleaming wit, philosophical benders and pop-culture fixations, and the sheer intensity with which he hurls his words in this even more assured work of incandescent literary maximalism. And the underdog triumphs again.
One of the most ambitious, audacious books of recent memory ... this novel is stuffed with various plots and subplots, making it nearly impossible to summarize in a concise, satisfactory way. Getting lost in all these ideas—and all the ways in which they intersect, connect, and reflect—is one of the great joys of reading this novel ... a book that entertains and informs, and begs you read it again in order to better envision the scope and import of a work that so successfully undertakes such a wide pallet of ideas and emotions, opening up new possibilities for the novel, for humanity, for protest.
In his extraordinary new novel, de la Pava (A Naked Singularity) weaves together several story lines centered around Paterson, N.J. Nina Gill is a preternaturally gifted football strategist ... Like his previous work, de la Pava’s novel employs a variety of narrative forms, including legal briefs, sermons, phone transcripts, and the text of a prison handbook. De la Pava is a maximalist worldbuilder, and the incredible multiverse he constructs in this book establishes him as one of the most fearsomely talented American novelists working today.
At the heart of de la Pava’s shaggy dog tale, overlong but not overworked, is an unabashed love for pigskin ... Parts of the story are seemingly the standard aspirational sports rah-rah, but turned on their head, and the caper that plays out alongside Nina’s championship run, laced with philosophy and cornerbacks, is a blast to watch unfold. A whirling vortex of a novel, confusing, misdirecting, and surprising—and a lot of fun.