Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear Is a Supercharged and Perfectly-Timed Novel
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February is a peculiar month to have chosen to publish Idra Novey’s steamy debut, Ways to Disappear. Peculiar, because the book has all the trappings of a beach read, complete with a crackling affair, an exotic setting, and a page-turner plot. Even with the unseasonably warm weather around most of the United States this month, it is difficult to remember that there are parts of the world where you can still emerge from baggage claim to the “stink of armpits, car exhaust, and guavas.”
Then again, what is the purpose of literature if not to transport you to a place you are not?
And transport it does: Ways to Disappear finds the American translator Emma hastily booking a ticket to Rio de Janeiro after “her author,” the celebrated Beatriz Yagoda, vanishes without explanation. Left behind in Pittsburgh is Emma’s boring, stick-in-the-mud almost-fiancé Miles, who seems so ill-matched with Emma from the start that there is no question of her staying with him through the end of the novel. No matter: Ways to Disappear is supercharged to the point that Miles quickly becomes forgotten by both the reader and to Emma, replaced by the far more interesting Marcos, one of Beatriz’s children.
It is in staying with Marcos and his sister, Raquel, that Emma uncovers Beatriz’s dangerous gambling habit that has brought the successful author a seemingly insurmountable mountain of debt; indeed, the loan sharks are circling. Then, when Emma finds an unpublished manuscript of Beatriz’s and tracks down Beatriz’s publisher, an exchange of words and money makes it seem almost possible to save Beatriz and put a stop to the threats.
As zany as the story is, there is a blade of darkness to the plot of Ways to Disappear, a particular edge that makes it not quite so summery as it first appears. Novey’s keen word choices (early on she describes a blabbermouth as “detonating”) and a kidnapping (complete with a severed ear) give the novel such a clear-cut black-and-white divide between the good and the bad that it feels woven from the same fabric as a 1940s noir.
But just everything is more dangerous than it at first appears, so too are the stakes in the novel’s purpose raised even higher. Novey herself is a translator, her most recent project being Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H; while it is always lazy to assume the author’s writing herself into her characters, it would be an error to ignore the clear source of the inspiration of Yagoda in Lispector’s own saintly standing in Brazilian literature and pop culture.
Further, Novey strays into meditations on the act of translating itself, bits and pieces of which are scattered, gem-like, throughout:
With each sentence, she sank further into the words and her voice began to rise. She’s lived with these descriptions for so long, had mulled over them as she drove through the snow and while she brushed her teeth.
And wasn’t the splendor of translation this very thing — to discover sentences this beautiful and then have the chance to make someone else hear their beauty who had yet to hear it? To arrive, at least once, at a moment this intimate and singular, which would not be possible without these words arranged in this order on this page?
And finally, there is the slow-burn of Ways of Disappearing’s ending — so broken down that each chapter is no longer than a page. There is something practically tactile about finishing this novel: A steady march to the end, where one is dragging their feet along without wanting to face where they might be going. It is an experience almost — if you will — like grieving.
In some ways, then, Ways to Disappear is perfectly timed, hitting bookshelves in the deepest part of winter. While it is a spark of warmth in the cold, it is just as easily suited for a brooding winter day when you are trapped inside with only your thoughts and your memories. After all, as any good detective knows, when you go looking for things that have disappeared, you always have to consider they don’t want to be found.