Idra Novey opens her debut novel Ways to Disappear with a sixty-year-old woman, perched high in an almond tree with a suitcase, reading a book, a cigar stuck in her mouth. One of the domino players in the nearby park wanders over to see if he can be of assistance and to sneak a look at a woman’s ample behind directly over his head.
The image is compelling and strange and wonderfully perfect for this novel. It sets the tone, hints at themes, and opens the door to the possibility that anything can happen in this fast-paced plot.
There are, it turns out, many ways to disappear. The woman in the tree is the Brazilian author Beatriz Yagoda, and when she disappears, her translator, Emma, sheds her life and her boring boyfriend in Pittsburgh and flies to Rio de Janeiro to track her down. Translators are the silent magicians behind the author’s story, moving words and meaning from one language to another. They fly below the radar of publicity, ignored and paid accordingly. Since graduate school, Emma has translated five of Beatriz’s works. She has lived Beatriz’s stories “with the intensity of an addict.” But when she arrives in Rio, Emma becomes absorbed not with words, but with Beatriz’s life, falling for the author’s handsome son with radioactive-green eyes, and tangling with the author’s daughter, Raquel, who has little time for fiction, or for Emma, who thinks she knows her mother simply because she’s intimate with her work.
People can also disappear to each other when they see only parts or fragments. Emma idealizes Beatriz; Raquel sees Beatriz as a strange, unreliable mother. Raquel remembers when the government dynamited the prison on Ilha Grande island, and she and her mother watched it on TV. Her mother pointed to the birds and said, “Look, the birds are collapsing in the sky. She would have liked to have spoken with her mother just once about what was actually happening. A demolition.” Beatriz’s longtime editor and publisher, Roberto Rocha, views Beatriz as his first true author, and her book as his only success. And Beatriz’s gun-toting loan shark, who has funded Beatriz’s online gambling habit and now wants his money back— he only sees the author as a source of money.
The gambling is an unexpected discovery. Beatriz, a closet gambler, is hiding behind the pseudonym of a shoemaker, O Sapateiro, which was what her father became when he left Johannesburg, where he’d worked as a lawyer. This persistent juxtaposition of images adds energy to the story. There’s also the urgency of a dangerous thug and a missing author. This is not a quiet story.
Novey has translated several books from Portuguese and Spanish, including Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. She seems to have absorbed some of Lispector’s style, with her strange images and overwrought characters who encounter something that pushes them out of their daily reality toward an existential crisis, all within the constraints of realism. But Novey departs from Lispector’s long interior monologues that stretch her work into the realm of speculation. Ways to Disappear is more reader-friendly. The chapters are short, creating a sense of speed, and they are interspersed with even shorter chapters–emails sent by the rejected American boyfriend and dictionary entries.
Here is Emma, reading Beatriz’s work to Beatriz’s son, Marcus.
For I know something, she read, about the dream life of pigeons. I know their dreams are not unlike the floating thoughts of a woman who’s forgotten herself in a bath. A woman who’s willed herself into a slumber as the water streams, steaming, from the faucet over the full tub and onto the floor, slowly leaking into the room below.
Instead of letting the moment go on for too long, Novey brings us back to the present story:
Ah, that’s my mother there. Marcus pressed his lips to Emma’s shoulder and she continued more slowly, more luxuriantly. She’d read an essay by Borges once in which he’d used the word “lujosamente” to describe the voice in Joseph Mardrus’s translation of A Thousand and One Nights.
Novey has said in interviews that she was interested in violence and how an unspoken trauma manifests differently in a writer’s work than in her relationship with her children. Beatriz’s publisher tells her to tone down her work, advice that Beatriz rejects, insisting the point is to take all of it too far. Novey smartly aligns herself with Beatriz’s approach.
The novel starts off comic and wacky but turns menacingly dark. Soon, center stage, there is a kidnapping, an ear in a shoebox, bodyguards and ransom notes. This movement across tones and genres—farce, comedy, mystery, romance—offers plenty of surprises. You can disappear for hours in Novey’s original story.