THE WASHINGTON POST – What could be more tantalising for bibliophiles than the mystery of a lost manuscript? The fascination one feels when imagining the discovery of an unknown Shakespeare play or a misplaced suitcase full of unpublished Hemingway stories gets the blood racing in us bookish types. No mere buried treasure of gold doubloons can compare. Perhaps that explains, in part, the appeal of novels such as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (in which a lost classic by Aristotle comes into play) or Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and its suppressed Gnostic heresies.
When the enigmatically absent work of art involves the embers of ancient controversies or family skeletons, even better. In that vein, we have been treated to Tim Wirkus’ The Infinite Future, about a Brazilian science fiction writer whose lost magnum opus sets a group of seekers in motion.
The broad outlines of Michael Zapata’s The Lost Book of Adana Moreau hew to Wirkus’s template, but Zapata’s book is more sedate and ruminative than its more absurdist predecessor. Moreover, it’s imbued with a fairy-tale vibe reminiscent of John Crowley, Nicholas Christopher and Reif Larsen. Overlaying the deftly conjured 20th– and 21st-century settings and events is a sense of eternality, of archetypes and mythic patterning. Our tale opens in 1916 in the Dominican Republic. The nation is being invaded by United States (US) Marines, who swiftly kill two married rebels. Their young daughter, Adana (often referred to as the ‘Dominicana’ in a mythologising fashion), survives. Shortly after, she marries Titus Moreau, a charming rogue who bills himself as ‘the last pirate of the New World’. They end up in New Orleans, and in 1920 have a son named Maxwell.
This simple domestic biography is overridden by a supreme passion when Adana falls in love with a newly born art form: commercial science fiction. Soon she is so steeped in wild pulp daydreams that she composes an outré but topical novel: Lost City. In 1929 it gets serialised in Weird Tales magazine and published in book form. She completes a sequel, A Model Earth, which young Maxwell reads with fascination. But then Adana dies, and the new book is seemingly lost forever.
Here I should interrupt my plot summary to comment on Zapata’s own evident love for and knowledge of science fiction. He is no mere dabbler or trendy opportunist. He plainly knows the field inside and out and name-checks seminal figures with precision. His knowledge of the genre’s history allows him to brilliantly fabricate and insert other imaginary titles, such as “a novel called The Seas of Eternity written by Thomas Flores, a Mexican American science fiction writer who had died in obscurity in Nevada in 1977″. The result is a realistic alternate history of the field which harks back to Kurt Vonnegut’s imagined works of Kilgore Trout. The science fiction aspect is thematically vital and integral to Zapata’s mission, which is to portray the workings of coincidence and multiversal alternatives in our daily lives.
The novel’s second section brings us to Chicago in 2004. We meet Saul, a young man whose favourite reading material is likewise SF. Orphaned young (rather like Maxwell, whose father goes missing), Saul has been raised by his grandfather. Now the grandfather is dying, and he entrusts Saul with a last directive: to mail a package to a stranger named Maxwell Moreau. When the package is returned as undeliverable, Saul opens it and finds the manuscript of A Model Earth. Enraptured by it, he decides to track down Maxwell – a fairly well-known physicist in hiding – and deliver the lost book of Adana Moreau in person. He enlists the help of a journalist pal named Javier, a wounded soul “addicted to disaster”.
The novel bops back and forth between these two pasts, intertwining the saga of Maxwell’s peripatetic life with the quest of Saul and Javier. Naturally enough, the two tracks will converge in a truly satisfying closure that blends hope and despair.
Zapata’s carefully crafted prose oscillates between matter-of-fact and lyrically poetic, a tonal range that provides a very pleasant reading experience. Also stuffed not inelegantly between the microcosmic doings are several larger incidents that limn the bloody and brutal history of the two centuries, including South American totalitarianism, European pogroms and the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.
Ultimately, Zapata’s novel is about taking steps to create the world you wish to inhabit, whether through art or through the vital small deed of giving a wandering orphan a place to sleep.