Lately it seems that about fifty percent of new novels have a missing person in them. No, really: that many. I read a lot of flap copy in my job at the book store. And this isn't exactly a criticism, because I'm sort of obsessed with the subject myself. In the late 90's, I noticed that a woman who lived in our building was throwing away an awful lot of stuff. The other tenants and I watched the dumpster carefully: she was putting such great stuff in it, like clothes and unused file folders and even a pet taxi. These days, such behavior would make my hair stand on end, but back then we just thought, Great finds!
Later we heard that she had disappeared, leaving her kitchen cupboards full of shoes and her fridge full of iced tea. Her car showed up, ominously, at the end of a logging road.
And then she was found, hanging around a religious group in a distant town. It was such a bizarre interlude, and one I have never stopped thinking about. I remember with clarity the music I was listening to then, and the fact that during this time I once watched a pack rat crawl up the outside of our building, looking for a window to climb into.
A few years later, a guy here in Ithaca vanished on his way home from working at the Sunglass Hut in the local mall. He was a quiet guy who lived with his mother, and one day he left work on foot and was never seen again. I think of him every time I see the words "Sunglass Hut." Something happened to him, something strange and, from this perspective, inexplicable. But what?
Whatever happened to these people, it would be a good story. I suppose that's the appeal for these missing person novels: humane mystery. No blood, no viciousness, just pure mysterious absence.
But why now? Of course, I wonder if it's all about 9-11. American novels have always been about death and grief, but this missing person obsession: it's pretty new. What does it mean? What kind of social anxiety is it reflecting?
And here's another observation that may or may not be related: hardly anyone write social satire anymore. It might be my favorite kind of novel, but no one seems to have the heart for it anymore. I've started writing a few satires myself, and found them fizzling quickly. They make me feel bad, kind of. Francine Prose, who wrote the hilarious Big Foot Dreams, which made fun of tabloid journalism, and Hunters and Gatherers, which mocked New Age beliefs, has come out with Goldengrove, an apparently unsatirical novel about a character's struggles with the death of her sister. Prose always has her muzzle to the wind. What does it mean when she, too, has abandoned satire? If I knew her, I would ask her.
Have we Americans become... earnest? Yow.