Study Guide

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon Analysis

By David Grann

  • Genre


    The Lost City of Z is the type of story that, if it were fiction, would probably having you throwing the book to the ground and saying, "Inconceivable!" In a novel, Grann would find Z, and Fawcett would be there, indulging in an elixir of eternal youth. Somehow, in fiction, that would be within the realm of believability.

    Instead, we get one of the biggest anticlimaxes ever. Grann finds little more than a trace of Z. It's like if Indiana Jones never found the Ark of the Covenant but did maybe find a splinter that may have come from a box maybe touched by Moses.

    Yeah, not quite the same thing.

    However, as nonfiction, Grann is bound to the truth. It's great that the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. Fawcett's story, especially, is inherently exciting and dramatic, and Grann draws vivid, round characters from the real-life historical figures. Grann's frame story is less about the destination and more about the journey.

    We get to discover the world of the jungle and the people within it right alongside Grann—but without the mosquito bites.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    VisionZ of Z

    We have some advice for you: don't try to find Z. It doesn't exist. At least, it doesn't exist at this moment. It's like Iggy Azalea's career: it was once thriving, but now it's basically extinct, with little evidence of its existence remaining.

    This is a tough pill for many followers of Fawcett to accept, which is why they come up with ridiculously radical theories about Z—and Fawcett himself certainly got that Magic 8 Ball rolling by being secretive and paranoid. Grann writes, "In keeping with his secretive nature, he gave the city a cryptic and alluring name, one that, in all his writings and interviews, he never explained. He called it simply Z" (17.1).

    The name "Z" only adds to the appeal. If Fawcett had called it something lame, like Fawcettville or Boston, no one would want to find it.

    So it's not surprising that followers take Fawcett's near-mystical reverence for the unknown and run with it. Grann tells us, for example, about a cult leader who "predicted that the world would end in 1982 and said that his people must prepare to descend into the hollow earth" (25.2). Yep, dude thinks Z is a portal to another dimension.

    Even Fawcett's rational son, Brian, wondered if the "whole conception of 'Z,' [was] a spiritual objective, and the manner of reaching it a religious allegory?" (24.15). Fawcett may have only been satisfied by finding something within himself¬—because really, all mysteries lose some of their appeal once they're actually solved—and we can only hope he did before dying.

    In the present, Grann believes that many visions of Z were optical illusions. Brian and others, when exploring the jungle by plane, would see a city, but upon closer inspection would discover it was a natural formation. Grann also learns that a big advanced city with roads and more once existed, but collapsed. The people died—from conquistadors committing violence or infecting them with disease—and their reduced population couldn't maintain the city. The jungle consumed the city's structures.

    But Grann learns that this culture still remains, albeit in a fragmented way. It's like if you put together a puzzle, but someone came along and scattered most of the pieces. Some are lost forever, but you still have portions of completed scenes. Grann enjoys his time with a tribe he believes descended from the citizens of Z. CitiZens, perhaps? Anyway, he images Z as it may have stood and writes, "The finished story of Fawcett seemed to reside eternally beyond the horizon: a hidden metropolis of words and paragraphs, my own Z" (25.23).

    Fawcett may or may not have found contentment within himself, but we know for sure that Grann has achieved it. As a result, he returns from the jungle alive, to tell his tale.

    Good. We don't need any more mysteries.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    From A to Y?

    The ending leaves us with so many questions. What ever happened to Fawcett? Did Z exist? And most importantly: why doesn't this book have 26 chapters? Seriously, Grann? Z is the 26th letter of the alphabet, and you stop on Chapter 25?

    Let's address these questions in order. David Grann sets out to find Fawcett and Z. He finds neither. That doesn't mean his quest was a failure. During his journey, Grann learns a lot about Fawcett and the idea that Z once may have actually existed. By painting vivid pictures of the man and the city, we end up with more questions about these two—but having more questions is a good thing. It can prompt more interest in researching and preserving the rain forest, for one thing.

    Grann shows us industrial development in the jungle. Trees are cut down. A dam is built on a sacred site. Basically, we're in FernGully 2 territory. It's Grann's subtle way of working an environmental message into his book. Z is already lost, he seems to say. What might be next if we don't act now? No one will be upset if the candiru (Google it) goes extinct, but there are many rich and wonderful cultures in the jungle in danger of being lost forever.

    Speaking of lost, when Grann himself gets lost, he knows what it was like for Fawcett almost a hundred years prior. Chances are good that Fawcett's time simply ran out, like it did for so many other explorers in the jungle. As Paulo says to Grann, "Now you have some kind of real picture in your mind of what it was like for Fawcett?" (25.38). We do. He was super, but he wasn't invincible. His fate was likely similar to that of others—illness, accident, or kidnapping.

    But enough about death. What about the most important issue? Where's the 26th chapter? Could its absence be intentional, to symbolize that Grann never found Z, or are we over-thinking things?

    Us? Over-think? Never. Now excuse us while we go write a 60-page dissertation on the finale of Dancing with the Stars.

  • Setting

    The Amazon, Early 20th Century and Early 21st Century

    The Green Inferno

    What is dense, mysterious, unmappable, and full of strange and deadly wildlife? If you said Donald Trump's hair, you're almost right. But we don't have the space to analyze that here. Instead, we're talking about a safer place: the Amazon jungle.

    Described by Grann as a "green hell" (2.9) and by explorer James Lynch as "the most beautiful place he had ever seen" (2.35), the Amazon is a place you have to see to believe—if you can make it back alive, that is.

    This mixture of beauty and danger makes the jungle a compelling place. That comment about it being beautiful was made when Lynch while he was being kidnapped by natives, so that shows you just how much of a draw it can have on some people. It had the same alluring pull on Fawcett, who wants to unlock its mysteries.

    (Pro tip: nature always wins, folks. Always.)

    Like Fawcett, a man who seems superhumanly strong but nevertheless destroys himself with his own obsession, the jungle is a paradox. It's lush and green, but it's filled with things that want to kill you. It's one of the densest places on the planet, and yet it's almost impossible to find food there. If we were to personify the jungle, it would be more internally conflicted than Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights.

    Jungle 2 Jungle

    As fascinating as the jungle itself is, what Grann does when he returns to the jungle is shows us just how much it changes. You'd think an environment this large and powerful would be eternal, but you'd be underestimating the destructive power of humanity, which knows no bounds.

    Even during Fawcett's time, the jungle isn't untouched. Conquistadors desperate to find the riches of El Dorado or other mythical cities have either killed the tribes of the jungle outright or left behind diseases that have done the dirty work for them. Fawcett isn't mapping unexplored territory. The jungle he treks through is already damaged.

    But humans are also notoriously shortsighted. It isn't until Grann visits with Michael Heckenberger, an anthropologist who lives in the jungle, that he realizes how quickly things can change there.

    Grann hints at the ephemeral nature of everything human in the jungle throughout the book, for example by showing us the jungle's destructive power on human and animal bodies, which are stripped by ants and other creatures. But Heckenberger shows Grann that it's not just people who have gone: structures and buildings, when unmaintained, are quickly reclaimed by the jungle as well.

    That revelation leaves us in a place just about as sticky as the one Fawcett was in. We can be 99% certain that Z no longer exists—but there may no longer be any definitive trace of it, either. In fact, it may be hard to ever determine either way whether it existed or not. All we have left is hope. And ants. There will always be ants.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    At times all I need is a brief glimpse, an opening in the midst of an incongruous landscape, a glint of lights in the fog, the dialogue of two passersby meeting in the crowd, and I think that, setting out from there, I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect city… If I tell you that the city toward which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop.
    —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

    What's up with the epigraph?

    We could make this really short and sum up the epigraph with a cliché: it's not about the destination; it's about the journey. But like the Transformers, there's more to this than meets the eye.

    You could look at the epigraph two different ways. One way is to see it as a description of Fawcett's journey for Z. Fawcett only has an inkling that Z exists, the "glint of lights in the fog," if you will. From his research on the jungle, he crafts a vision of a huge jungle city. Even without any concrete proof of Z's existence, Fawcett never gives up his search.

    The other way of looking at the epigraph is from Grann's perspective. In a way, Grann is undoing all of Fawcett's work. Grann's journey all but proves that Z is "discontinuous in space and time." It likely collapsed and disintegrated long ago. There's a small but unlikely chance that the cultists following Fawcett are right and Z exists in a parallel dimension, but that's as likely as Megan Fox winning an Oscar for Transformers.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    Hiking through the Amazon rainforest gets a 10 on our tough-o-meter scale. Even with modern technology like Jeeps, tents that are nice than our apartment and GPS, we wouldn't want to brave the bugs, snakes, and wary tribesman with spears. Doing the same trip in Fawcett's time is off the charts on the tough-o-meter. Dude didn't even have DEET.

    On the other hand, David Grann retells Fawcett's journey with easy-to-follow language. And although Grann weaves historical events and figures into his narrative, his writing style is more Dan Brown than history textbook. Reading The Lost City of Z is a breeze, especially if you can do it in front of a nice AC vent and as far away from nature as possible.

    Sure, nature is nice in theory, but Lost City of Z reminds us that what nature really wants to do is kill you.

  • Maps

    Off the Map

    The first thing we see is a map, "wet and crumpled, the lines I had traced to highlight my route now faded" (Preface.1). We can try to mentally draw a little dotted line on it, like when Indiana Jones trots about the globe, but it's no good. David Grann is lost.

    There are other maps, too. A young Fawcett possesses a map of Ceylon that he hopes will lead to a mystical place called Galla-pita-Galla. It doesn't. Grann studies Fawcett's journals and letters, turning them into a metaphorical road map to his location. Grann says, "I knew it would take me days, if not weeks, to go through everything, and yet I felt delight. Here was a road map to Fawcett's life as well as to his death" (5.24). And before traveling to the Amazon, Grann uses Google Earth, marveling that "What was once blank space on the map was now visible in an instant" (11.2).

    This is all well and good, but none of these maps lead anywhere—a fact Grann realizes in the book's final chapter, when he looks at the same map he mentioned in the preface. "The Z in the middle suddenly seemed ludicrous, and I began to curse Fawcett" (25.32).

    When in the Amazon, maps are useless. The only place they will lead you is to certain death.

  • Tools and Technology

    The Golden Compass

    Technology moves at a rapid pace. Whatever device you're reading this on is probably going to be obsolete by the time you finish this sentence. Reading Lost City of Z, we see how changing technology shapes the world, and how shaping the world changes technology.

    Grann shows us the technology Fawcett used to explore the jungle. Sextants, chronometers, aneroids, and compasses, all devices that would be in historical museums today, were state of the art in the 1920s. These tools stand in contrast to the things Grann purchases in 2005: "Compression sacks, water-purifying bottles, portable solar-powered hot showers, kayaks that folded into a bag" (7.16). Grann also drives a truck with GPS into the jungle, whereas Fawcett was only able to explore by foot. He didn't have GPS. He was the GPS.

    Technology definitely gives people an advantage in the jungle. In fact, the difference in tech is a big source of animosity between Fawcett and his rival, Alexander Hamilton Rice. Fawcett has only the bare essentials. Rice, by contrast, has more tools than a frat house during hazing week.

    Tools and technology don't only change the way people explore the jungle; they change the jungle itself. Outsiders bring technology into the jungle and leave it there. Tribes these days have shortwave radios and televisions. Modern explorers bring cell phones. Could technology be a disease of a different kind, or is it a cure?

  • The White Indian

    Blank Canvas

    One of the biggest misconceptions about the Amazon is that it was named after the online superstore.

    Okay, if anyone actually believes that, we will be very, very sad.

    We still don't know a lot about the Amazon, because it is such a dangerous place to explore. But back in Fawcett's day, people knew even less. Their ignorance led to a belief in many unlikely things, and one of the biggest mysteries was the existence of so-called "white Indians." As Grann writes, "the notion that the Americas contained a tribe of 'fair' people, or 'white Indians,' had endured since Columbus claimed that he had seen several natives who were as 'white as we are' (14.24).

    The racial implications here are they the white native are somehow superior or more civilized than others, purely based on their pale skin color.

    One pale native, Dulipe, is dubbed "the White God of the Xingu" (22.59), and he presents himself as Jack Fawcett's son. This is a cruel joke, much more devastating than the Kalapalos turning over fake bones and saying that they are Fawcett's. Dulipe's tribe clearly hopes to profit like the Kalapalos and has no regard for Nina's emotions when they mislead her to believing her son is still alive.

    The truth is that these "white Indians" are albinos. Albinism is common in the jungle. This revelation shows us that what is magical in the jungle can really turn out to be mundane—just like Z.

    Except George of the Jungle. He's real.

  • Camelot

    Sir Failsalot

    Z is like Fawcett's Holy Grail, in the sense that unlike Indiana Jones, he doesn't choose wisely, and his bad choice basically sucks the life out of him.

    Grann himself doesn't make the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade connection; he has a more Arthurian view of Fawcett and his search for Z. He makes many references to the legend of Camelot, for example when he calls a manuscript "the Holy Grail for the Fawcett freaks" (16.7) and refers to Jack and Raleigh as "'ramrod Englishmen,' each of whom resembled Sir Lancelot" (1.22). Even the members of George Dyott's rescue crew dub themselves the "Knights of the Round Table." (22.20)

    What all these references do is add to the legend, romance, and mystique of Fawcett himself, who lived a life almost as dramatic as that of the mythical King Arthur. These references also underscore the idea that Fawcett's entire quest is based partly on fantasy. Sure, the dude knows the Amazon, and he knows how to survive there, more or less, but the power of his fantastical ideas is so strong that he eventually loses himself in them.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • Arthur Conan Doyle (Preface.6) (1.3) (3.1) (4.30) (10.6) (17.21)
      • William Shakespeare, including Othello (1.8) (4.22)
      • Charles Dickens (1.19)
      • Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust (2.8)
      • Ernest Hemingway (2.12) (18.25)
      • Mark Twain (4.12)
      • William Butler Yeats (4.28)
      • Alfred, Lord Tennyson (4.30)
      • Sigmund Freud (4.30)
      • Charles Darwin (4.30) (12.13) (14.19)
      • Sir Henry Rider Haggard, King Solomon's Mines (4.35)
      • E. M. Forster (4.35)
      • Joseph Conrad (4.40)
      • Rudyard Kipling, "The Explorer" (8.3) (8.12)
      • Lewis Carroll (17.39)
      • Ian Fleming (22.50)
      • Homer, The Odyssey (22.57)
      • Graham Green (24.12)

      Historical References

      • Thomas Hobbes (Preface.5)
      • Christopher Columbus (Preface.6) (8.15)
      • David Livingstone (1.2) (4.34) (22.10)
      • Sir Walter Raleigh (1.8) (15.12)
      • Amelia Earhart (2.12)
      • Richard Francis Burton (4.34)
      • Giacomo Puccini (8.15)
      • Ernest Shackleton (Chapter 12) (17.15)
      • Judas (12.42)
      • Theodore Roosevelt (12.45) (14.35) (22.11)
      • Winston Churchill (14.21) (17.8)
      • Friedrich Nietzsche (14.25)
      • Hernán Cortés (15.4)
      • World War I (17.2)
      • Woodrow Wilson (17.45)
      • John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (18.33)
      • Henry Morton Stanley (22.10)

      Pop Culture References

      • 60 Minutes (3.18)
      • James Bond (7.17)
      • Babe Ruth (17.45)
      • Clark Gable (18.2)
      • Mary Pickford (18.2)
      • Lawrence of Arabia (18.3)
      • Road to Zanzibar with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope (21.48)
      • Adventures of Tintin (21.48)
      • Indiana Jones and the Seven Veils (21.50)