Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Missing and the Lost

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.

14 comments:

jon said...

That's all I write, Social Satire. But it's hard now, since reality is so absurd. God help us if earnestness has taken over. Irony, on the other hand, should be shot in the back of the head, or go missing. Not the irony of Shakespeare, Sophokles and the bible. Just the weak, reflexive irony that mistakes itself for satire.

jrlennon said...

My last novel, Happyland, was a social satire as well, and those editors who rejected it all seemed to say the same thing--the characters were unappealing, the tone was nasty. I certainly didn't see it this way myself--indeed, I had great sympathy even for my villain. But it was as if they were turned off by the notion of social satire itself. Maybe it just isn't what New York is looking for these days, though it is often what I want to read...

AC said...

There's a bit of a trend in the title "Goldengrove" also. Well, maybe not a trend so much as a coincidence. According to the publisher's blurb online, the Francine Prose novel is about a girl surviving the drowning death of her sister. And there's another novel (YA, I think) called "Goldengrove Unleaving" by Jill Paton Walsh, which is also about the drowning of a young girl. Although in that story, the girl is retarded and her brother pushes her over a cliff to put her out of her misery (although the misery is more on the part of the family, who are ashamed and overwhelmed by the burden of having a disabled child). One of the more disturbing books I've ever read, if only because that aspect of the story doesn't seem to make much of an impression on readers. It was highly recommended to me by several people as a beautifully written coming of age story. I can't imagine that Francine Prose didn't know about this earlier book, so I wonder what influence, if any, it had on hers.

Pale Ramón said...

Funny, but when I read the title Hunters and Gatherers, I immediately thought of Geoff Nicholson, whom I've always thought of as a satirist.

grumpy said...

I too love writing satire, and I am frustrated when agents say, "Satire isn't selling."

I take issue, however, with the premise that satire is more difficult to write in this time, in this society. It could be said of any historical era or place, "Satire was easier to write in the old days."

It is the burden/opportunity of the satirist to stay one step ahead of reality. And it can be done.

Art said...

Pure satire may be a hard sell, but surely one can use satire within a story to great effect. I happen to be reading Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth, whose narrator a) deals with people disappearing and b) uses satire to defend his position against the world...although I suppose he does so too eanestly and with too little credibility for it to really count. Chalk one up for dissappearances though.

rmellis said...

I consider Roth a holdout for social satire, though usually that might be too strong a term for what he does. Maybe "social critic" is it.

Burl Veneer said...

I'll hazard a guess that the missing/lost trend is related to ARM resets, which started hitting in bulk last year. Lots of people were suddenly saddled with larger mortgage payments than they could afford--often on mortgages for more than the house is worth--resulting in a spate of "mailing in the keys and walking away." So perhaps the prospect of an impossible monthly budget, and now greatly reduced assets, lends some allure to the notion of disappearance.

jon said...

Maybe the missing business is just laziness. All you have to do is have a missing child in your narrative and it instantly creates empathy and suspense. It's like shooting a dog.

GFS3 said...

Regarding the missing and lost. Don't you think it has to do with the situation most Americans find themselves in? We are overworked and underpaid compared to a generation ago. We buy things we can't afford. Many of us are a few paychecks away from disaster. We have no social safety net of any worth.

Don't all of us wish on occasion to vanish? To just pack a suitcase and hit the road? How freeing that would be! That, of course, leads to an obsession with those who have disappeared (and that most of these stories end badly - allows us to fantasize, but not to risk actually doing it).

Just a thought. Beautifully written post.

Diana Holquist said...

Or then there's the reverse fantasy, of wanting someone in our lives to disappear when in real life they just don't ever go away...

Matt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt said...

Interesting topic and comments. There's a good point to be made about the proportionate "distance" of satire when a country is in a state of upheaval (whether it be economic, political, etc..). Mind you, the U.K. seems to excel at satire no matter what's going on. Perhaps (perhaps...) they have embraced it as a cultural appendage as opposed to N. America where it seems a less organic tool of expression. Or perhaps I'm talking out of my ass.

rmellis said...

It might be an Oprah effect. There might be a perception among the publishing class that the Oprah fans make or break novels, and if you can appeal to them you are a few steps ahead. As far as I can tell from the choices, Oprah isn't a big fan of satire. She prefers the uplifting.

This might be overly simplistic.