Stories about women in unsatisfying relationships are in no short supply, but in her much-anticipated debut novel Ways to Disappear, poet and translator Idra Novey turns what could be a predictable tale on its head. Actually, she subverts more than a couple familiar tropes — the myths and mysteries of writers' habits, an American finding her identity in an exotic land — by crafting a novel that is that seeming oxymoron: an experimental page-turner.
Ways to Disappear (Little, Brown) is expressly about experimenting, abandoning the comforts of reliability, believing in the impossible, transgression — it's got both Borgesian meta-ness and Garcia Marquez's magical realism in its DNA. The novel's protagonist is Emma, the American translator of esteemed Brazilian writer Beatriz Yagoda. Early on in the story, Emma recalls a conversation she had with Yagoda: "For translation to be an art, [Beatriz] told Emma, you have to make the uncomfortable but necessary transgressions that an artist makes." This is an adage by which Novey seems to abide at every level. Flipping through the book, one can't help but notice the chapters — they're short — and their various forms: poems, emails, radio broadcasts, dictionary-definitions-cum-microfictions.
A closer look reveals Novey's transgression extends beyond the novel's structure. Take Emma, who shares a name and a restlessness with Flaubert's Madame Bovary. When we meet her at the novel's opening, she's in a long-term relationship with Miles, a long-distance runner. Her life — adjuncting outside Pittsburgh, considering the inevitable tedium of married life, feeding domestic cat's, "[delighting] in exercise and recycling" — bores her; no wonder she's on a plane to Brazil within hours of learning that Beatriz has disappeared.
But disappearance is putting it lightly. "Her author," as Emma often refers to Beatriz, is a not-so-nimble sexagenarian who has climbed into an almond tree and vanished, leaving cryptic clues for only her publisher, Roberto Rochas. When Emma arrives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — a place where "jackfruit ... splattered on the ground, their insides [sugars] the air" — she finds the author's grown children, Raquel and the hunky Marcus, stunned by their mother's behavior and a hitman making lethal threats.
Ransom notes are sent; ears are chopped off, trysts are sustained; grudges are held and dissolved; but the real central drama of Ways to Disappear is the way artistic creativity complicates individual identity. It's not easy to be a writer, suggests Beatriz's behavior: the burden of authorship may be so great it forces one to want to disappear. But neither is it easy to be a translator, a child of writer, a reader for that matter, to lose one's self in another mind's cavities and contours. "What about knowing what a writer had never written down — wasn't that the real knowledge of who she was?" Beatriz's daughter, Raquel, thinks shortly after her mother's vanishing.
Still, creativity and the world of literature seems both a burden and a grace for the characters in Ways to Disappear. Beatriz's publisher, shocked by the press' coverage of his author's personal drama, wryly observes that "[Beatriz] wasn't visible anymore, or not until she disappeared." And Emma, as she furiously works to track down her author, copes with the chaos by composing a book of her own. At first, this action is strange to the translator, but, over the course of the novel, she realizes she has only one choice: write or be "alone with all the hours of her life."
With such a recognizable plight, one can't help comparing Emma to other literary malcontents. Unlike Madame Bovary, however, or, for that matter Kate Chopin's The Awakening or any number of stories of feminine ennui, Novey's Emma is a creative force.
With such a recognizable plight, one can't help comparing Emma to other literary malcontents. Unlike Madame Bovary, however, or, for that matter Kate Chopin's The Awakening or any number of stories of feminine ennui, Novey's Emma is a creative force. Novey deftly portrays Emma's relentless need to make — even if the cost of that making is unmaking the stable life she's built for herself in the United States. When Rio paparazzi snaps photographs of her and Beatriz's son, Marcus, on a steamy ferry ride, Emma observes that she "had come to find the unease this conflict produced in her curiously alluring. She couldn't help winding herself tighter and tighter around it like a thread around a spool."
But Ways to Disappear is far more than the story of any one woman's quest for artistic or individual fulfillment. It's a canny mystery brimming with stories (some of the finest moments are snippets of Beatriz's own writing) and pithy observations about the world of literature (i.e., "[Rochas' assistant] pushed up the thick-rimmed glasses all the literary girls wore now"). And it's a celebration of the possibilities fiction offers us to translate our own lives into things greater, more surreal than we could've imagined. Even a hat makes Emma feel like a character. "Between the dark feather and the giant white brim of the hat, she looked like a woman who was slightly off her rocker, or maybe just a woman with a sense of humor, who wasn't willing to wait for some impossible alignment of the stars to enjoy her life."