Ways to Disappear
By Idra Novey
Little, Brown. 272 pp. $25.
by Katherine Hill
It is a false dichotomy that we read some books for plot and others for language, as though plot has nothing to do with language, nor language with plot.
Idra Novey’s delightful debut novel, Ways to Disappear, has it both ways, and if Novey is not consciously writing to debunk this myth, she has done the job nonetheless. In her sly, learned sentences, language is a fascinating plot all by itself.
The novel opens in Copacabana, where celebrated Brazilian writer Beatriz Yagoda is climbing into an almond tree with a suitcase — exactly the kind of vanishing act that Beatriz herself might write. On receiving the news in Pittsburgh, Beatriz’s American translator Emma can’t help thinking in Portuguese. Determined to bring her author back, the way she faithfully brings her work into English, Emma books a last-minute ticket to Rio.
“For translation to be an art,” she remembers Beatriz telling her, “you have to make the uncomfortable but necessary transgressions that authors make.”
Novey's novel is full of such transgressions, artistic and otherwise. In involving herself in Beatriz’s disappearance, Emma quickly involves herself in her author’s life. She tangles with a repulsive loan shark to whom Beatriz owes a gambling debt. She collaborates with hard-wired Raquel and soft-on-the-eyes Marcus, Beatriz’s adult children who don’t read her work. And she makes a deal with Beatriz’s editor, Roberto Rocha, who so adores the missing author's work that everything else disappoints him. As Emma grows ever more entangled in Brazil, ignoring emails from her obsessive boyfriend Miles, her fidelity — a perennial issue for translators — is tested on numerous fronts.
All of this makes for plenty of plot, but it is Novey’s fascination with language and writing that allows her to draw multiple meanings from every turn. Her short, spare chapters are interspersed with e-mails and Brazilian news items, while occasional key words like promise, permission, and matter receive the dictionary treatment throughout, allowing moments just described to resonate in clever, often haunting, ways. Each one is like a poem, or a riff on meaning, a welcome indulgence from Novey, who has won accolades for her poetry and translations.
Translation remains an inescapable theme in Ways to Disappear, which is as much a novel of art and ideas as it is a detective story. Fans of Latin American metafiction will appreciate the ways in which Beatriz’search.
Yet in Novey’s vision, even surreality remains an earthy business, originating in the body: “Emma tried to think from what book or movie she could be recalling with such an odd court scene. Unless perhaps the image hadn’t come from elsewhere and was hers, something she’d been storing up for some time but hadn’t been able to recognize as her own until she found herself alone in this apartment and had lifted this brush to her hair.”
Just as words matter in a novel of ideas, the body matters in a novel of disappearance. When the missing person is a writer, words and bodies feel more vulnerable than ever — yet simultaneously indispensable and strong. Or as Emma puts it, “To arrive in Rio was to remember that one had a body and brought it everywhere.”
Katherine Hill is the author of the novel "The Violet Hour."