You Are the Past and Present: The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida
by Alina Cohen
You board a plane to Morocco and sit next to an almost-handsome businessman. You look at photographs of your niece and your eyes tear up. You see a familiar woman sitting in front of you and quickly dodge her gaze. Within the first few pages of Vendela Vida’s The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, the reader learns that the main character (“you,” as it’s a second person narrative) has experienced what is described as “the horror of the last two months.” You (the character) are on a plane from Miami to Casablanca, though you (the reader) don’t know why. Suffice to say, right from the start, Vida has you hooked in and committed for the entire flight. She lays the groundwork for the rest of the novel, a gradual revelation of the details that comprise the “horror” that you have experienced.
While dropping clues about what you have undergone, the narrator leads you through a series of misadventures in Casablanca. Themes of identity, performance, and choice gradually emerge as someone steals your backpack and passport. You end up using other women’s credit cards and names. A secretary asks you to act as a body double in a film and you ultimately must choose how to extract yourself from the series of entanglements in which you’ve found yourself. As the plot develops, Vida asks her audience to consider what constitutes identity. She gives the reader a nameless protagonist with mysterious motivations. With limited information, the reader must piece together a portrait of this woman.
This information can be divided into past and present. First, the reader knows how the character acts as the story progresses. Secondly, there are the clues that Vida gives about the character’s history and the traumatic sequence of events that led up to her trip to Morroco. These clues don’t cohere until the end of the novel, by which time the reader has already formed a perception of this character’s probable identity. It’s impossible to escape the past, Vida suggests, as her protagonist runs into a woman in Morocco that she knew from her Florida hometown. Ultimately, though, it’s the details about the narrator’s present actions that create the reader’s most lasting impression. She’s a woman defined by her adventurous decision to leave for Morocco, her ability to win the trust of an actress and movie crew, charm the actress’s ex-boyfriend, and eventually leave them too once that escapade grows stale. Regardless of prior misery, the character recreates her identity through the decisions she makes moment-by-moment. Vida empowers her character with the ability to choose a new life and to shape her own identity.
Performance reveals itself as a key element of identity. You surmise that your twin sister’s “relationships were as well choreographed as her home.” Your sister cries on your shoulder in a “dramatic ploy” of manipulation. She designs her home like a theatrical set. Your sister’s tears and her color-coordinated throw pillows are all part of a larger performance. Something treacherous lies behind the façade she presents, which the reader soon discovers. This may be the most insidious instance of performance, but it isn’t always the case.
At one point, the Moroccan sky is compared to “the sky in a musical production for children.” Vida suggests that performance and the theatrical aren’t necessarily false or negative, but rather ubiquitous elements of our world, evident even in nature. Performance can also be liberating. While you film a scene in a mosque, you remember the details of the trauma that befell you before you left for Morocco. You begin crying, and the director commends you, saying that the famous American actress for whom you’re a stand-in can “take a few lessons from you on how to cry.” Performing has allowed a sense of release as acting in the film allows you to come to terms with the past and move on. On set, you are as genuine and honest as ever. Performance can both conceal and reveal the deepest of emotions. The manner in which a woman performs reveals volumes about her character and the identity that she chooses to construct.
Through her themes of identity and performance, Vida makes evident her belief in individual choice. No matter who or what other forces may try to influence you, you remain capable throughout of selecting your own destiny. This third theme, the persistence of individual choice despite difficulty, reveals itself in film titles, song lyrics, and poetry. A variety of art forms echo a belief in the individual spirit to recreate itself and triumph over adversity. The movie for which you’re a stand-in is called A Different Door, a nod to your character’s opportunity to take an alternative path in your own life. Vida embeds Patti Smith lyrics in the narrative, including “[t]ake my hand come undercover” and “we have the power,” certainly pertinent to a character who gives false names and struggles to find her own voice after years of passivity and submissiveness.
Finally, you read a Rumi poem called “The Diver’s Clothes Lying Empty,” also written in the second person, that gives the novel its title. The diver’s clothes, empty of the body that inhabited them, suggest abandonment. As the diver has left clothes lying on a beach, so too have you deserted your former life and self. The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty relies on the “woman in a foreign land” set up that Vida has used in previous novels. By throwing her characters into strange situations, she gives them ample opportunity to redefine themselves and the trajectories of their lives. This new volume is compelling in its underlying mystery and its call for readers to explore their individual pasts and the opportunities they can take in pursuit of a fulfilling future. It’s never too late, the novel suggests, to begin anew. Vida’s prose is spare and suspenseful, moving the reader quickly toward the denouement. It’s a novel ripe for the summer season — a book you can read on your porch or at the beach, leaving your old self, like the diver’s clothes, behind.
by Vendela Vida