Sean Gandert has crafted a stunningly prescient version of the United States in his debut novel, Lost in Arcadia. Started seven years ago and completed before the 2016 presidential election, the book opens in a near future America in which a Muslim ban and a wall along the Mexican border have existed for years. Gandert’s novel—which unfolds like a dystopian thriller mixed with literary satire—already sounds like a timely summer read:
The America of 2037 is a country distracted by, infatuated with, and addicted to Arcadia.
The brainchild of reclusive genius Juan Diego Reyes, Arcadia is a wickedly immersive, all-encompassing social-media platform and virtual-reality interface. Although Arcadia has made the Reyes family fabulously wealthy, it’s left them—and the rest of the country—impoverished of that rare currency: intimacy. When Juan Diego mysteriously vanishes, the consequences shatter the lives of the entire Reyes clan.
As matriarch Autumn struggles to hold the family together, siblings Gideon, Holly, and Devon wrestle with questions of purpose and meaning—seeking self-worth in a world where everything has been cheapened. Outside the artificial safety of Arcadia, America has crumbled into an unrecognizable nation where a fundamentalist ex-preacher occupies the Oval Office, megacorporations blithely exploit their full citizenship, and a twenty-foot-high Great Wall of Freedom plastered with lucrative advertising bestrides the US-Mexican border.
In a polarized society now cripplingly hooked on manufactured highs, the Reyes family must overcome the seduction of simulation to find the kind of authentic human connection that offers salvation for all.
Lost in Arcadia will be released on July 1st by 47North, and Paste is excited to share an exclusive excerpt of the novel. Gandert says, “This chapter occurs about halfway through the book after one of the protagonists, 18-year-old Devon Reyes, has been arrested for possession of controlled substances. Devon is addicted to video games, and he narrates the chapter as if it is a game walkthrough in order to disassociate from his trauma. Unfortunately for him, the events occurring within it are all too real.”
Wake up. Your head will feel . . . not exactly fine, but only woozy, no pain, no jackhammers like in cartoons. You won’t know where you are. Think to yourself, wherever I am, it’s certainly not home. AVOID: thinking to yourself, I’m not in Kansas anymore. You’re better than that. Your head will rest on concrete that feels colder than ice. Despite its pocks and rough surface, it will be soothing to the touch, almost as good as a pillow. There will be nothing else to put your head on. Your bowels will be raging. You will wish beyond anything else that you could keep your body from churning like some demented whirlpool, but there will be nothing you can do.
Lie on the floor for what seems like hours, days, listening as people talk and yell in the background. A loud metal door will clang open and closed, but don’t open your eyes until your insides have become too much to deal with and you have to use the toilet. The room you lie in will be dimly lit, but still too bright for your eyes, so squint in pain and notice that there are at least a dozen other men in this cell with you. Notice that you are the youngest one in the cell by at least five years, and also that there is no barricade of any sort between the metal toilet in the far corner and the rest of the cell.
It will only now occur to you that you are, in fact, in a cell.
Ignore everything else and spend most of the rest of the morning on or in front of the toilet. Feel embarrassed about this, but ignore the looks of the heavily bearded men nearby. Pretend you are alone. Pro tip: when that fails, pretend that you can pretend you are alone.
You will still be wearing your clothes, despite their unrecognizable stains yet far-too-recognizable smell, when the shuttle bus picks you up. The shuttle will be white and unlabeled, almost pleasant from the outside, as if it’s ready to take you and your cellmates—because that’s what they are, it will dawn on you, cellmates—to somewhere else. You won’t even be sure where else, and while the shuttle is initially reassuring, that will end once you walk inside. Its floors will be metal and from the back, where you enter up a ramp like freight, like cargo, there will be no seats, just bars from the ceiling to the floor for you to hold on to. The security windows will be laced with metal wire and the front of the van will house two uniformed men holding assault rifles.
These will be the first assault rifles you’ve ever seen in person. They will be smaller than you’ve imagined, smaller than video games make them seem when they’re hovering in front of your screen as an indication of your character, but far more frightening. The men carrying these assault rifles will seem to think nothing of them. No one with you will seem to care about them, either, but you won’t be able to help internally flinching every time one of their barrels haphazardly crosses your path.
Your ride will take fifteen to twenty-five minutes, speeding you from downtown past where you thought the city ended.
Ask one of the other prisoners, Where are we going?
The prisoner will respond only by laughing.
Pretend you didn’t ask and watch the city and everything you’ve ever known recede behind you as the shuttle bus pulls into a gate. Act as if all of this is normal, expected. Pretend you are as nonchalant as everyone else in the bus, even though internally you will be doing your best not to cry. Do not cry. Do Not Cry.
Pro tip: when you cry, face away from the other prisoners and guards.
Men with handguns will ask you for your fingerprints. You will give them without thinking or responding in any way that will draw their attention. Other men will ask you your birthday, Social Security number. They will ask you your hair color, your eye color, even though you are standing right in front of them. They’ll ask you your height and ask you your weight, even though they have just measured both. They will have you sign forms you don’t have time to read. You will sign them as quickly as you can, writing your name in an illegible scrawl and putting initials wherever indicated. They will take photographs of you and blood samples and urine samples. They will take a retinal scan. You will comply with whatever they say because there is no reason that you can think of not to comply. You will be asked about medical or psychological problems and respond that you have none, though you will wonder whether you are in fact telling the truth. You’ll wonder how many people in here are fucking crazy and whether they answered the same way you did.
You will realize that your wallet and keys and phone are missing. They’ve probably been gone since before you woke up, but now is the first time you’ll have the cognitive abilities to notice. You will put your hand in your pocket to check what your clan, the Baby Eaters, are doing on Arcadia. When your phone isn’t there, you will momentarily worry about it being stolen. It will take you almost five full seconds to realize exactly how stupid this is. BOSS STRATEGY: don’t ask the guards when or if your possessions will be returned to you.
After half an hour you will be taken to another room, a room with one metal door and no furniture. The floor will be tile but whatever pattern it may have once displayed will now be scuffed beyond recognition. The floor of this room will be dirty, but you will sit in the far corner, away from the other prisoners in the room, and try not to make eye contact with anyone else from your shuttle as they slowly join you. You will consider asking one of the other prisoners what will happen next but be unable to get up the courage.
The room will smell bland but dusty. With nothing else to do but sit, you’ll become aware of your own smell, the stink of puke on your clothes that’s only grown worse. You will wish you could brush your teeth because your mouth still tastes acidic, like fermented orange juice. You’ll wonder, given how badly you smell to yourself, what it’s like to be someone else in the room. You will wonder if this has in fact been a blessing, since despite being the smallest, weakest, youngest person in here, the other prisoners have given you a wide berth. Wonder about the lack of any camera in this particular room. Wonder about the brownish-red stains on the wall behind you.
When finally given your orange jumpsuit and a chance to shower, feel grateful. Worry, momentarily, about the chance of shower rape. Be grateful that no one in your group so much as looks at each other once naked.
Enjoy the feeling of synthetic fibers on your skin because at least they are clean. Your jumpsuit should feel almost like a tarp and seem virtually waterproof. While not terribly scratchy, the strangeness of its texture will be distracting. Wonder about how they managed to give you a jumpsuit several sizes too large and the man next to you, who would fit it perfectly, a jumpsuit far too small.
Wonder why no one looks good in orange. No one.
You will be escorted to your cell, which will be the most cell-looking enclosure you could possibly imagine. You will be in disbelief about how much it looks like a television set, to the point that you look for cameras, in the halfhearted hope that perhaps this has all been a big hoax, a reality television show. There will be cameras visible, but they are simply white, swivel-mounted security cameras. Pro tip: this is not a reality television show.
You and another prisoner, one you have not met before, one referred to as Navedo by the guards, will be in a cell together. Wait in silence with Navedo. Navedo will be large, maybe two hundred twenty pounds, perhaps with unkempt facial hair, but with a kind face. Navedo will seem just as uncertain as you are.
After an interminably long period, introduce yourself to Navedo.
Navedo will say hi.
Ask Navedo if he wants the top bunk.
Navedo will say he doesn’t care.
Give Navedo the top bunk anyhow, as a sign of respect of some sort, and lie down on your own bunk. Try to sleep but be unable to do so due to the noise and light of the room. Your back will feel terrible from sleeping on concrete last night, and now you will want nothing more than to relax, but it will be impossible to do so, even though Navedo seems to be the best cellmate you could have asked for.
At dinnertime, go to the meal. Fill up a tray with a hard roll, rice, gravy, beans, and an orange. With an almost completely empty stomach, this will feel like a blessing, up to the moment you taste the gravy. In the end, you will only be able to force yourself to eat the dry and stale roll and the orange, but regret this overnight when your stomach feels ready to mutiny and strangle you out of its own sense of irritation and entitlement.
The next day you will wake up almost as disoriented. Be ready to wonder about your phone call. Navedo will still be lying on his bunk and unwilling to leave the room when the hallway’s fluorescent light signals you to get up.
Ask him, do we get a phone call?
He will groan in response.
Ask him again in twenty minutes, so what’s the deal with phone calls?
He will say, how should I know? He will seem even unhappier than you are, so leave him be while you head to the cafeteria. This morning, you will eat everything on your plate, everything you can touch. You will feel even sicker for this later, will spend an uncomfortably large part of the day sitting on your metal, lidless toilet while your roommate exits the room to visit the chapel and wherever else.
When you have time later, and even though it’s just a day it feels like you have endless amounts of time, infinite periods of time because you’re still disconnected from Arcadia, you should speak with a guard about the phone call. He will laugh, then ask how much it means to you.
I thought it was a right, you’ll say.
He will laugh again. Pro tip: movies are liars. You will decide that talking to him is pointless and wander on your own. Eventually you will come across a payphone asking for $1.50 a minute, which will seem incredible given that all of your money was taken away before getting in here. There will also be a bulletin board with bail bondsmen listed, though you will be unsure what exactly it is they do. There will be a line at the phone, twelve people waiting at this hard plastic relic, this payphone that might be the only one left in the city. Decide that maybe this is all too much, and more importantly, that you don’t even know who to call anyhow. Reject calling your mom right now, and internally laugh about the idea of getting in touch with your father. Gideon or Holly? That motherfucker Steve? The truth, you will realize, is that you are alone in here and finding the phone was completely pointless.
Head back to your room and consider what else to do. You will be unclear on how much longer you will be stuck here, and so desperate that you even consider joining your roommate at the chapel. It seems quaint to you, oddly old-fashioned that this jail should have a church, and even odder that prisoners go there to pray or whatever. AVOID: mentioning this to Navedo when he returns to your cell. It will create an uncomfortable situation between the two of you for the rest of your stay.
Wallow in your own unhappiness for the rest of the day. Nothing else should feel appropriate to the situation, certainly not going to worship a God you believe in minimally, if at all.
By the time guards pull you out of your cell a day later, it will seem like you have always been here. The guards will take you and twenty or so other prisoners to what appears, at first glance, to be a typical corporate conference room. You will sit around a large table with a lacquered faux-wood finish while a man who introduces himself as your probation officer greets everyone around the room. He will begin talking to people, not you, in a succession around the room until a projected image appears on the far wall. You will recognize this projection as an Arcadia chat program, and won’t be able to hide your surprise when a fully robed judge appears on the other end of the screen.
Your turn with the judge will come somewhere in the middle. The probation officer will be told your crimes, which will be unlawful possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, underage drinking, and soliciting prostitution. Your probation officer will discuss these charges for between two and five minutes with the judge, at the end of which you will learn that there is a recommended bond on you for five thousand dollars.
Panic over the five thousand dollars. Be fully aware that you do not, and have never, owned five thousand dollars, despite the ridiculous wealth of your family.
Following your conference call with the judge, you will be taken to a room with multiple phones. Again, a bulletin board will list bail bondsmen and, after observing several other prisoners calling these numbers, do so as well.
Be completely unclear on which bondsman you should call. When the bondsman answers, she (it will be a she, and this will surprise you though it should not) will tell you that you need to give her five hundred dollars. This you can do. But you will wonder how to get her the money. The bondswoman will tell you it can be wired directly from your account, if you know the number, but you will not because that is a crazy thing to know. Instead, she will ask if someone else can bring it to her, and you tell her that your friend Steve can, in a check, but you don’t know how to get ahold of him. Eventually she will agree to post your bail so long as you give her the five hundred within twenty-four hours of your release. This will be acceptable, doable, but you will wonder what would happen if you could not round up the money.
Less than an hour later, you will be transported back in the white van headed downtown. Your roommate Navedo will not be in the van with you, and you will wonder why that is, but never think of him again afterward.
You will be given back your clothes, which smell even worse than before, and most importantly your phone. Swipe it and enter your password. At the site of its home screen, feel like a full person again, like you have suddenly been cured of blindness. Text your friends for a ride home. You will see Disney’s old primer-colored automobile, dubbed “The Boat” by Steve because it looks more seaworthy than roadworthy, turn the corner almost half an hour later. He will make a face at the way you smell but otherwise stick to small talk as he drives you home. Your mom will not be there to ask questions, thank God, so after putting your clothes in the washing machine and taking a shower you will feel ready to pretend none of that ever happened. Send five hundred dollars through PayPal to the bondswoman without ever meeting her and sleep soundly for the next fourteen hours.
A week later you will receive a letter in the mail from the State of New Mexico. Your mother will want to see what it says, but you will snatch it away and glare at her for asking. When she brings it up later, say it was just junk. It will be obvious that your mom doesn’t believe you. Open the letter in your bedroom once she’s asleep and read what it says. Realize that until opening this letter, you felt that that weekend was just a bad dream. You will want to burn the letter, but instead read it over and over again, even though it tells you no new information.
The next day, go downtown to the state public defender’s office. Pro tip: it will be impossible to find parking, so don’t despair at paying five dollars an hour. Once in the office, you will fill out a financial affidavit determining whether or not you qualify for a lawyer. You do, because everyone does, and will be assigned one at random. You will not meet with this lawyer in person. You will be told a name and then, several weeks later, receive a nonpersonalized email from the State Public Defender’s Office repeating this information. You will wonder whether there is something you should discuss with this lawyer, but choose to do nothing. Spend the rest of the summer in Arcadia. Go to college. Continue acting in public as if none of this ever happened.
In late October, approximately five months after you were arrested, you will receive another letter from the state. Fortunately, by this time you will have moved out from your mom’s house and it will arrive at your new one, a block from Bataan Park, shared with two of your friends. You will be the only one who takes in the mail anyhow, so it will be easy to make sure no one else sees this letter. You will read words like “indicted by a grand jury” and “required for a formal arraignment” and not be able to tell what any of this means. You will read a date to appear for the arraignment.
You will be prepared for the arraignment, you really will, but when the time comes, you will not be able to force yourself to go. Instead, you will be playing a competitive match of Duty Calls online with your friends. When the bail bondswoman calls the next day and chews you out for not appearing in court, thereby threatening her livelihood, you will not know what to say.
I don’t think you’ve been treating this seriously, the bondswoman will say.
You will say that you have.
Have you even been in contact with your lawyer? she will ask.
Not exactly, you will stammer.
BOSS STRATEGY: don’t tell the bondswoman you are sorry. This will only cause her to yell at you even more.
The bondswoman will require another one hundred dollars from you to guarantee that you will show up at the next arraignment. Even so, when you do show up, she will be angry with you. You will tell her it was an honest mistake, but she will just grunt and ignore you.
The judge will be even less happy than the bondswoman. He will be an older man, white and balding but trying to hide it and sweating profusely all over his head. He will threaten to increase your bond, which will seriously worry you because of how expensive all of this is turning out to be. Eventually the judge will calm down, slightly, and read your charges and the possible penalties. The penalties will include five years in prison. You will begin sweating even more than the judge, shivering. The room will feel far too cold, even in your unpressed suit. The judge will set a deadline for “motions,” and you will have no idea what this means.
After the arraignment, you will finally hear from your lawyer. He will leave a voice mail on your phone requesting your presence immediately. Visit his office the next day. Your lawyer, a surprisingly large man, a man you would not want to face in a dark alley given his size and the amount of hair on his white knuckles, will tell you to plead guilty. He will lay out the facts of the case: you were caught red-handed, the prostitute has accused you of giving her ketamine, your blood-alcohol level when the police picked you up. He will say that the state may go easy on you for a first offense. If you plead guilty.
You will leave the office not knowing what to do. You will be afraid of living the rest of your life as a felon, of having to tell your mother and face your family. You will be well aware by now that felons receive no financial aid for college. Your lawyer will have told you to get back in touch with him as soon as you’ve made a decision, that he needs an answer soon. Very soon. You will go home and get on Arcadia with your friends, destroy zombie invaders in a MOBA until you fall asleep on your keyboard, and pretend none of this ever happened for as long as you can.
Lost in Arcadia will be published by 47North on July 1st, 2018.