St. John Mandel is a regular contributor at The
Millions where "Notes on Disappearance"
originally appeared. Her first novel, Last Night in Montreal,
was published by Unbridled Books and was a finalist for ForeWord
Magazine's 2009 Book of the Year. Her second novel, The
Singer's Gun, was published by the same press in 2010.
She lives in Brooklyn and has a website at www.emilymandel.com.
get lost in a romantic mist.
Let's get crossed off everybody's list.
My mother has me on a Canadian literature program. Twice a year,
birthdays and Christmases, a package arrives from British Columbia
with one or two Canadian books in it. I have strong opinions
about selecting books for nationalism, but these gifts are wonderful,
among the highlights of the year. She sends me novels and poetry
that I might not have come across in an American bookstore:
Shani Mootoo’s spectacular He
Drown She in the Sea, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s
Way The Crow Flies, Patrick Lane’s
poetry. The most recent package included Vanishing
and Other Stories by Deborah Willis. I’ve
been reading it in the subway to and from work all week. It’s
title seemed familiar when I first saw it, and then I remembered
Vanishing: A Memoir by Candida Lawrence, which I’ve
been meaning to read ever since it came out last year. Which
made me think of something I’ve noticed lately: with no
disrespect intended to either Willis or Lawrence, an awful lot
of books have vanishing in the title. A cursory search on Amazon
reveals about a dozen novels and books of poetry called either
Disappearing Act or Disappearing Acts, and
at least twice that many titled Vanishing Act or some
variation thereof -- I confess that I stopped counting after
the first couple search pages on both counts -- and that’s
not even counting the scores of books with the word 'disappearance'
in their titles.
else I’ve noticed: even when a given book doesn’t
have vanishing in the title, it very often has vanishing in
the plot. (Full disclosure: I’m guilty of this in two
novels). Once you begin looking for disappearance in the bookstore
-- turning over jacket flaps and reading plot synopses -- it’s
everywhere: our literature is full of abducted children, men
and woman walking away from their lives, teenagers fading out
into heroin cities.
it isn’t that people don’t disappear in real life.
There are haunting posters for an inexplicably absent forty-year-old
woman all over my neighbourhood today, and Lawrence’s
Vanishing is, after all, a memoir. Children set out
for bike rides and never come back, men and women step out for
the paper and never return. But real-life disappearances are
unusual enough that when they happen, they generally make at
least the local if not the national news and frequently fill
airtime on CNN. People don’t disappear nearly as often
in real life, it seems to me, as they do in fiction. I believe
that we’re fascinated, as a culture, by the idea of vanishing.
There’s a line that’s stayed with me from Martin
Amis’ sensitive yet devastating look at Vladimir Nabokov’s
body of work in the Guardian last year. “Writers
like to write about the things they like to think about,”
he wrote, in an examination of Nabokov’s unsettling insistence
upon returning, in novel after novel, to the defilement of twelve-year-old
like to write about the things they like to think about: in
the context of a pervasive fascination with disappearance, the
most obvious explanation is that writers are, after all, just
people, and a fascination with vanishing seems widespread in
the general population: there are three apparently separate
books entitled How To Disappear Completely and Never Be
Found on Amazon at the moment, one of them in print for
the past thirteen years, and countless variations (How
To Be Invisible; Cover Your Tracks Without Changing Your Identity;
Hide Your Assets And Disappear).
there’s anyone among us who hasn’t at least once,
at least fleetingly, fantasized about stepping out of our lives.
In darker moments, it’s a tantalizing thought: the opportunity
to start over, a new name, past mistakes erased. “After
reading this book,” an anonymous Amazon customer wrote
on one of the How To Disappear Completely review pages,
“I spent hours at the public library copying obituaries
of baby boys who were born and died around my birthday. I wanted
to prepare myself to assume another identity one day. It was
a delicious obsession, and exhilarating.”
I would be interested to know how many of the readers of the
disappearance how-to guides have actually disappeared, and how
many, like the anonymous man copying obituaries in the library,
buy the books in order to make the fantasy of disappearance
more tangible. Not just a dream but a real possibility, now
that you have a guide to the territory. We live in a strangely
paradoxical time: on the one hand, there has never been a period
in human history when we’ve been documented so relentlessly
as we are now, so fingerprinted and photographed and bar-coded
and taped. On the other hand, our identities seem somehow malleable.
This is an era where a complete re-creation of self seems possible.
Dan Chaon’s Await
-- one of the great disappearance novels, in my opinion
-- a recent high school graduate who’s assumed a new identity
begins to wonder who she is. She has no parents; she’s
left her older sister and her dreary hometown and set off into
a frightening new life. Her name was once Lucy Lattimore, but
that’s not the name on her passport. “More and more,”
I needed a copy of my birth certificate in order to claim American
citizenship at the Montreal consulate, I ordered it online from
a government website. I needed nothing but a credit card for
the processing fee; the document arrived in the mail a few weeks
later. It occurred to me later that I could have ordered anybody’s
birth certificate, absolutely anybody’s, and that anyone
else could have ordered mine.
If writers like to write about the things we like to think about,
and if we spend -- as the plot synopses on our dust jackets
suggest -- an inordinate amount of time thinking about vanishing,
another possibility we might consider is that the very act of
writing fiction is in itself a kind of disappearance. And if
you’re engaged in disappearance as a profession, doesn’t
it make sense that it might become your theme?
were raised on stories of brave children entering magical countries.
Alice falls down a rabbit hole and steps through the looking
glass, Max flees to an island populated by Wild Things, other
children slip through the backs of wardrobes and through gaps
in hedges and leave this world behind. Sitting down at a desk
and slipping into a kingdom where the plot, the characters,
the narrative arc, even the laws of physics are malleable and
within your control is not, perhaps, terribly different. When
you sit down to write a novel you step out of your life for
a little while; it’s a separate world you’re creating
on the page, wholly apart from the chaos and the disappointments
of life on earth.