With The Lost Daughter Collective, Lindsey Drager positions herself next to innovative writers like Rikki Ducornet, Aimee Bender, and Donald Barthelme, who have used fables and folktales to achieve an ineffable effect. Her novel follows a group of anonymous fathers who regularly gather in an abandoned umbrella factory to mourn their lost or dead daughters. The cumulative effect of the novel is achieved through well-manipulated emotional distance, embedded narratives, surreal violence, and literary allusions.
Drager’s use of structure provides a pathway to the unspeakable. Lost Daughter is broken into two parts—the second half being a pivoted extension of the first, providing the reader a different perspective through which to view the material. Each part consists of vignettes that oscillate between a framing story and multiple embedded narratives, resulting in a fluidity of identity that grows out of the repetition of related material. The fathers gather to mourn in a type of group therapy. They tell their daughters’ stories hoping to soothe their trauma. But through the telling process, they lose their daughters again as each girl is renamed and transformed into a myth. If the daughter is missing she becomes Lewis Carroll’s Alice; if dead, L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy. By including these literary icons, Drager tempers the potentially melodramatic subject matter.
The frame narrative consists of a father—an academic who works at a research institute—and his daughter on the eve of her fifth birthday. As the girl crawls into bed, he tells her that “the time has come to tell you a real story” and as a result “she experiences what she will later understand as fear […] as well as the realm of history and horror.” The father intends to use stories as didactic tools to control his daughter. Certainly, there is a connection to Arabian Nights. Scheherazade’s stories were more than simple cliffhangers that delayed the inevitable, though. Each was a proactive chess move against the bitterness resulting from Shahryar’s first wife’s infidelity. Like the Trojan Horse, Scheherazade’s entertaining stories sneak past Shahryar and transform his murderous ways. In a similar way, the father uses these intentionally melodramatic and morose stories to make his daughter more cautious and fearful.
In “The Barber and His Alice,” Drager retells the Rapunzel story. The daughter in this story loves to spend her days in the fields. Her mother insists that she cut her hair short to stay clean while playing outside. The daughter objects to the idea, so her compassionate father braids and binds her hair. When she goes missing, the Barber finds his daughter’s severed braids and begins to keep them in his apron while at work. After work, he roams the city streets in search of her. The story is only two pages. Like any good folktale, the characters are intentionally flat, keeping the horrific loss from being sensational. The real development occurs within the imagination of the reader as the frame and the embedded narratives rub against each other, allowing themes to emerge.
In the second half of the book, Drager renames the girls after famous feminist authors—Mary Shelley, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Virginia Woolf. This is an example of how the book develops by adopting a new constraint. Renaming and retelling transforms, and possibly dilutes, the fathers’ trauma while also keeping us from having complete access to fully realized characters. This isn’t a criticism of Drager but instead a recognition that the author appropriately uses fabulist tools to create atmosphere.
There is also a playful use of confusion as a result of the daughter in the frame story misunderstanding of the ideas of correlation and causation, and her mishearing of her father’s words. First, each supposedly true story makes her examine the relationship between events for causation. Is there a connection between calling asparagus “stupid” and her baby teeth coming loose? There is for her. This results in a childish paranoia that drives the girl to confess and apologize to her father. Drager foregrounds this by jumping into the future—when the daughter is grown—when she realizes that her fifth birthday coincides with the anniversary of “the day her mother left the circuit of the living.” In these instances of dramatic irony, the reader sees what the character cannot. Second, the daughter mishears what her father says. For example, when she asks her father where she came from, he tells her that “it was like a closet without windows. . . . Like a prism in a storm.” But she hears “prison” and “swarm.” The reader also observes the father misunderstanding his daughter’s messages, further expanding this theme and establishing an inexpressible atmosphere. Like the renaming of characters, these confusions push the story away from objective unity and toward the personalized and subjective.
Our expectations are pleasantly manipulated and undercut through a number of moves that defy easy interpretation, leaving the reader in a space of lingering uncertainty. For example, Drager creates a surreal image of the daughter imagining her birth as ecdysis, the process of a lobster molting:
She is thinking of her father’s claim that a daughter is held inside a mother and trying to determine what this means. Does the daughter stand upright and grow along with the mother until the mother layer is shed to reveal the daughter underneath? Does the daughter split the mother like a flesh shell, then leave the mother behind, an abandoned suit?
This surreal violence is an example of Drager’s poetic imagery that connects the frame and embedded narratives. For a lobster to grow, it must experience the stress of its body pushing against itself. This process of transformation applies to both the mourning fathers and the scholar’s daughter. Like a molting lobster, the fathers need to find a safe place during the grieving process. The meetings at the umbrella factory provide such sanctuary. Finally, from the daughter’s perspective—her growth and development become the sources of her mother’s disappearance—in what she could perceive as an emotionally manipulative move by her father.
Drager’s positioning, layering, and repeating produces a cumulative effect that is felt before it is realized. The different parts of this text share an associative field that allows for meaning to emerge within each reader. Drager isn’t interested in the heavy-handedness of the metaphorical “this” is like “that.” Instead she plays with meaning and interpretation, which we see in her incorporation of academia and theory through the Wrist Institute, a pseudo-academic institution where the father from the frame narrative works as a scholar. He offers his daughter “what we call History” and truth, but what he tells her is far from what the reader would recognize as anything factually accurate. The father uses academic theory to emotionally manipulate his daughter. Despite his best intentions—and his daughter’s misunderstanding—the result is something traumatic that will resonate with the reader in this time of fake news and ideology.
About the Reviewer
Jacob C. Singer’s reviews and interviews can be found at the American Book Review, Rain Taxi, and Brooklyn Rail. He serves as the Small Press Release editor at Entropy and can be reached on Twitter at @jacobcsinger.