Television

The Books on The White Lotus Have a Secret Message

The first season’s tomes were aspirational props, but the second’s are more like warning signs.

Aubrey Plaza and Valeria Luiselli's Lost Children Archive on The White Lotus.
Aubrey Plaza and Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive on The White Lotus. HBO

The books read by the characters in Season 2 of The White Lotus play a much more discreet role than the beach reading flaunted by the characters in the first season of HBO’s luxury-resort satire. The second season, set in Sicily, features at least one couple—Cameron (Theo James) and Daphne Babcock (Meghann Fahy)—who seem like they might not read any books at all, just as they avoid the news and can’t be bothered to vote. Only two titles make an identifiable appearance in the first five episodes, although Cameron’s college roommate, Ethan Spiller (Will Sharpe), occasionally holds a third book, a paperback, in bed, the spine broken and the back and front covers pressed together. (Update: A sharp-eyed reader has identified Ethan’s briefly glimpsed title as Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope by Mark Manson, a bestselling author of self-help books about affluenza for men and other people who don’t like to think of themselves as self-help readers.) Ethan’s wife, Harper (Aubrey Plaza), is one of the few readers in this bunch, toting around a copy of Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, a novel that was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize. Harper is visibly peeved when her plans to read it on their first morning are scotched when Cameron and Daphne wave her over to join them for breakfast.

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In Season 1, the characters’ books served as markers of their personalities. Basic real estate bro Shane read (of course) Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, while his ambivalent bride Rachel buried her nose in book-club favorite Elena Ferrante. That season’s foremost deployers of literary status, however, were the teens Olivia and Paula, who sported an incompatible grab bag of texts ranging from Camille Paglia and Sigmund Freud to Lacan and Frantz Fanon. When Shane asks the girls if they’re really reading these intimidating books, Olivia replies, with deadpan sarcasm, that they’re just “props.” But the retort has the ring of truth to it, given that neither girl seems brainy enough to tear through so many dense, theoretical texts poolside, and their fashionably progressive ideas mostly serve as a cudgel to use against their elders even as they enjoy the privileges they denounce.

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What does Harper’s choice signify? Luiselli has published celebrated volumes of both fiction and nonfiction, and Lost Children Archive has some of the traits of autofiction, a relatively recent form that collapses the facts of an author’s life into semi-invented narratives. Like such autofiction classics as Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, it features many references and allusions to other writers and to the dilemmas of making art from life. Luiselli, who is Mexican but lives in the United States, has volunteered as a translator for Latin American immigrants, particularly children, seeking asylum in the U.S., experiences that have shaped several of her books. Lost Children Archive is the story of a road trip undertaken by a married couple and their two children. Both husband and wife make audio documentaries, and they set out for Arizona, where the husband plans to work on a project about Apaches. The wife is researching the fate of two migrant children who vanished while in federal custody.

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The social conscience of Luiselli’s novel makes it a fitting pick for Harper, an employment attorney acting on behalf of workers in discrimination and harassment suits. But Lost Children Archive is also a novel deeply concerned with authenticity, whose narrator wonders whether she “can or should make art with someone else’s suffering.” Ethan and Harper have suddenly become very rich after the sale of Ethan’s startup, and Harper wants to believe that nothing about their lives has changed. “We’re not materialistic,” she tells Cam and Daphne, making no effort to conceal her disdain for the pair’s entitled obliviousness. As is often the case with social critics in The White Lotus, she’s right, but partly for the wrong reasons. You get the impression that even when surrounded by those she deems worthy, Harper isn’t much fun. Dwelling on the impeding “end of the world” gives her a good excuse not to be. Harper isn’t satisfied with simply disapproving of Cam and Daphne; she also needs to convince herself—and Ethan—that the other couple’s lovey-dovey happiness is just a front.

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Lost Children Archive is also a novel about a marriage in free-fall; the couple’s road trip is a last-ditch attempt to keep their family intact. As later episodes of The White Lotus will suggest in greater detail, Ethan and Harper’s union is fragile as well. In fact, none of the marriages in this season make a great case for the institution. The resort is decorated with ceramic vases in the shape of men’s heads which, a staff member explains to the guests, refers to a Sicilian legend about girl who beheaded her lover when she learned that he was married. Virtually every man in the series is a cheater, with the only variable being how the wives choose to deal with it. That includes Greg (Jon Gries), whose romance with the returning character Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), now a marriage, was one of the few glimmers of hope in Season 1.

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So by the time Albie (Adam DiMarco) appears in Episode 4 reading Lydia Kallipoliti’s artsy, esoteric study, The Architecture of Closed Worlds: Or, What is the Power of Shit?, the significance is obvious. Kallipoliti’s book (based on a 2016 exhibition) examines several historical examples of self-contained living systems, from space capsules and submarines to Biosphere 2, a failed experiment intended to demonstrate the viability of a closed ecological system or colony to sustain human and other forms of life. Kallipoliti observes that these attempts have almost always run afoul of the problem of waste of various kinds, which has yet to be rendered 100 percent recyclable and tends to accumulate and gunk things up. Is marriage such a system, an attempt to isolate two people in an enclosure of their own, doomed to malfunction due to the buildup of excess (usually male) desire? Is every ostensibly happy monogamous couple just a facade concealing accommodation and betrayal? And if that’s the case, is it any wonder that more than one of the guests this season will end up dead?

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