Through the Looking Glass: Notes on Disappearance

March 10, 2010 | 7 books mentioned 12 5 min read

covercovercoverMy 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 The 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 very good.

coverThe 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.

Something 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.

And 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 neighborhood 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 the national news and 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 Amissensitive 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 girls.

Writers 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.)

I doubt 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.”

coverI 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.

In Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply—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,” Chaon writes,

she was aware that Lucy Lattimore had left the earth. Already there was hardly anything left of her—a few scraps of documents, birth certificate and social security card in her mother’s drawer back in the old house, her high school transcripts resident on some outdated computer, the memories of her sister Patricia, the vague recollections of her classmates and teachers, already fading.

The truth was, she had killed herself months ago. Now she was next to nothing: a nameless physical form that could be exchanged and exchanged and exchanged until nothing remained but molecules.

When 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?

We 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.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a 2014 National Book Awards finalist. She is married and lives in Brooklyn.


  1. Reinvention is not the same as vanishing altho there have been times when I wished it were so. And then people vanishing into other people’s identities/lives–spies in fiction, witness protection programs (Viggo Mortenson in A History of Violence), 60s radicals, Nicholson in Antonioni’s The Passenger, du Maurier’s The Scapegoat, the novel and the movie with Alec Guiness. Wow–I love this. Terrific essay. Oh another one–the new William Boyd, Ordinary Thunderstorms–character goes off the grid and disappears in London. Thanks for all the good reading tips.

  2. I wonder if all this stuff — at least for some writers — about vanishing might have something to do with death. For most people, when they die, they don’t really leave anything behind. A few memories owned by the people who knew them is all and those will vanish, too. My great-grandfather was a fur trapper in the Southwest, spent a lot of time in Mexico doing his thing and I hear my mother and my grandmother and my grandfather say he had a lot of good stories and could tell them well, too, that they wish someone had taped him telling them or transcribed them, but nobody ever did and now all those stories are gone. You have to be Shakespeare to keep from vanishing and there’s a good chance even his stories will be gone one day.

  3. About 2,300 people go missing each day in America. In 2001, more than 840,000 disappeared, most of them children. So no, it’s not true that real-disappearances are unusual enough that when they happen they make the national news and everyone gets worked up. Most of the time, no one cares.

  4. Daniel, your point’s well-taken — I phrased that part badly. I think if I were rewriting this essay, I’d put in something more along the lines of “But real-life disappearances are unusual enough that when they happen, they generally make at least the local news and occasionally fill airtime on CNN”, or words to that effect.

    While I’ve read arguments that the missing persons statistics are somewhat inflated (a child returned a few hours late by a noncustodial parent can be reported as a parental abduction; sometimes multiple agencies report a person missing; etc), it’s worth noting that even 840,000, as vast and shocking as that number is, is still a minuscule percentage of the overall population.

    Whereas it seems (and I realize that this is completely unscientific; I haven’t done a formal survey here) like every third novel I pick up concerns some form of disappearance. So I’ll stand by my larger point, which is that people seem to disappear way more frequently in fiction than they do in real life.

  5. Shana – thanks very much! I’ve been meaning to see A History of Violence for years — I absolutely must rent it. And you’re welcome for the reading tips — I think AWAIT YOUR REPLY is actually one of my favourite books ever, let alone this year, and Shani Mootoo’s work is amazing; I keep meaning to pick up her new book.

    Hank – I think you’re on to something.

  6. Emily, I’m 2/3 through Shani Mootoo, will finish this morning. I never would have found this, I’m sure of it. I really do comb several literary blogs looking for gems. I was out of the country for several years and missed a lot. I love the Mootoo book–I love the Canadian parts and the island parts. The dialect is so interesting and as I read I can hear the lilt in the voices. The new Chaon book has been in my library queue for months–I figure another 3-4 weeks and it comes to me, and I’m going to reread his first novel so I’ll have the two together back to back.

    At this site I’ve found Adam Johnson thanks to a reader who directed me to a Tin House wallop of a story, also just a couple of weeks ago from Andrew–The Film Club.

  7. Shana, I’m so glad to have led someone to Shani Mootoo’s work. I met her at a literary festival in western Canada last year and then realized when I came home that I had one of her books, from one of my mother’s previous Canadian literature shipments. I’m glad I finally got around to reading He Drown She In The Sea — I think it’s wonderful. I was fascinated by the dialogue too.

    Amy, thanks for the tip – I’m always looking for new books to read. I’ve heard of Bush, but never read her.

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