Book Title: Ways to Disappear
Author: Idra Novey
Publisher: Back Bay Books
Publication Year: 2017
A novel starring a novelist can often seem a little pleased with itself, as if the author is looking over her shoulder, eager to make a great drama from a greatly uneventful thing. “Ways to Disappear” is the first novel by the poet and translator Idra Novey. The protagonist, Emma Neufeld, is a Portuguese-to-English translator devoted to the work of a cult-classic Brazilian writer. Novey herself translates from Portuguese to English, most notably the work of Clarice Lispector, the cult-classic Brazilian writer.
But Novey has wholly eluded the hazards of writing about writers. Instead, this lush and tightly woven novel manages to be a meditation on all forms of translation while still charging forward with a very fast pace.
The novel opens with Beatriz Yagoda, a Brazilian novelist to whom Emma has devoted her career, climbing into an almond tree with a suitcase and a cigar. It’s the last time she has ever been seen.
When news of her disappearance reaches Emma in Pittsburgh, she takes one look at her boyfriend and books a flight to Rio de Janeiro to find her beloved writer. “To leave a person capable of such meticulous devotion was difficult.” Yet Emma, as withdrawn as she is headstrong, manages to do just that.
Emma begins racking her intimate knowledge of Beatriz’s entire oeuvre for clues about where she might have gone. Luckily, a friend of Beatriz’s, Flamenguinho, has gotten in touch, and they arrange to have drinks at her hotel. He turns out to be a loan shark who knows Beatriz is broke but assumes that the publication of her next book in America will solve her $600,000 debt to him.
Novey writes with cool precision and breakneck pacing — all of this transpires in only 14 pages of text, with some chapters almost lean enough to fit on a Post-it.
Next, we meet Beatriz’s children: a territorial and suspicious daughter, Raquel, and Marcus, a bartending charmer with a “sensual and sleepy” gaze.
Raquel resents Emma’s infatuation with her mother, lacking any “patience for the illusion that you could know someone because you knew her novels. What about knowing what a writer had never written down — wasn’t that the real knowledge of who she was?” Unfortunately for Raquel, she gets an answer to this question.
As Emma, Raquel and Beatriz’s longtime publisher and editor, Roberto Rocha, search for the vanished writer, it becomes clear they are each looking for their own version of the same woman, just as a translator sees her own version of a text.
Emma seeks her idol; Raquel, her unreliable mother; and Rocha, a writer he’s had more of a role in shaping than either the daughter or translator realises. Marcus alone seems to seek nothing.
Of course, all their definitions of Beatriz must fall apart, and this unraveling comes in the discovery of her novel-in-progress. Though Raquel had “always known that if she read her mother’s fiction, it would be devastating or alienating or both,” she gives in, and the revelations are worse than expected. Emma is also heartbroken by the messy draft, only then realising how much influence her editor had on defining Beatriz’s style.
Being defined is being controlled; even deification is a manipulation. And just as Raquel and Emma must see Beatriz’s complete and fallible humanity, Emma has to shed her boyfriend and his narrow definitions of who she is. “What you’re doing down there is not your life,” he says in an email.
These brief, dire emails come in their own little chapters, as do fiction-infused dictionary entries. After the consummation of Marcus and Emma’s affair is the entry for “Between”, with the story folded into the usage examples: “between the two of them”, “between an author and her son”, “between a brief tunnel in Rio and the distant Pittsburgh of one’s cats.” Another series of chapters are excerpts from Radio Globo’s coverage of Beatriz Yagoda’s disappearance, showing yet another version of her story.
While most of these formal experiments enriched the novel’s investigation of definitions dispensed and lived under, one lost me.
In a pivotal scene Novey shifted abruptly into a poem that felt overdramatic and muddled crucial action. I reread it in confusion instead of with the pleasure I felt through the rest of this elegant page-turner.
And though it begins as a farce, complete with a comic interruption of midcoital lovers, it gradually takes a serious turn — guns go off, fires burn, a human ear is delivered in a shoe box. Beatriz flees to escape this violence, but in a deeper sense she is trying to slough off the varied definitions placed on her and her work, vanishing to be seen again.