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Notes on "Notes on Your Sudden Disappearance"
Thoughts on what makes a great new book so great.
Most weeks in this space I try to look into the world, find some small notion to latch onto, and then see if I can’t pull out some insights that other people might like to think on for themselves after reading the newsletter. This results in long-ish essays that are great fun to write, and hopefully at least moderately interesting to read, while also being pretty time-consuming to produce.
This week, I just want to tell you about a book I recently read that I think is really terrific.
The book is Notes on Your Sudden Disappearance by Alison Espach.
This is Espach’s second novel after 2011’s The Adults, and like The Adults it is a kind of coming-of-age novel. The narrator is Sally Holt, who is telling the story as an engaged twenty-eight year old woman in a direct address to her older sister, Kathy, who died when Sally was thirteen-years-old.
Kathy is beautiful and talented - singing the solos in choir and the Star Spangled Banner at the school basketball game - while Sally is shy and awkward, a lesser light by her own comparison, but the sisters are close, sharing a bedroom along with (almost all of) their innermost thoughts and desires. Sally is often willingly enlisted as a co-conspirator in Kathy’s life, most particularly in her interest in Billy Barnes, who has his own exalted status as star basketball player and manner of the snack bar at the pool.
Sally also “loves” Billy in the way a thirteen-year-old can love the older boy who becomes her older sister’s boyfriend. Kathy and Billy’s relationship is an object of both fascination and fear for Sally, being that age where you understand some things, but the adult her sister is becoming is still mysterious.
But as we learn early on, Kathy dies, while Sally and Billy and Sally and Kathy’s parents live.
Ultimately, this is a novel about what happens after a truly devastating personal tragedy and the way loss and grief distorts your entire world view. As the narrator, the story is primarily Sally’s, but her telling also provides a window into the experiences of her parents.
The writer side of me really admires some of the technical/craft decisions that Espach makes. The most obvious is her choice to have Sally telling the story directly to her deceased sister. As a device, this adds an additional layer of intimacy on top of a traditional first person narrator. We’re not just hearing a character’s story told in their voice, but we’re listening in on a private quasi-conversation. Sally is an adult when she sits down to tell this story to Kathy. Kathy both does and does not know this person, and the way Sally reveals herself to her dead sister is a method of Sally grappling with her own life. It adds a layer of tension to the telling.
It also allows Sally’s full personality to come through, creating a marvelously rounded character. She is sharing things she would only tell her sister in the ways sisters speak to each other. This is particularly well utilized in how Sally observes and relates to her parents, particularly her mother, who (understandably) falls apart following Kathy’s death. Sally assumes a role where she is something of an emotional shock absorber for her mom, a role she both embraces and resents, and the way she relates this dichotomy to her sister is very much the way we use our siblings to vent about our parents.
The whole thing just adds a richness to the exploration of very complicated family dynamics.
Also, and this may sound strange in a novel that is about grief, but it’s often very funny.
Though, of course, this isn’t strange at all, as last week’s newsletter about the urge to joke in the face of tragedy suggests. Sally is very quick and a little bit of an oddball, and I enjoyed her company because of it.
Another interesting and fruitful choice is the way, early in the book, Espach reveals Sally’s current age (28) and the fact that she has maintained some kind of connection to Billy all along. We often think about “point of view” (first person, third person, omniscient) when it comes to storytelling, but alongside point of view is what I call “perspective,” the time, place, and conditions under which the story is being told. Perspective has a significant impact on how a story is told. The bulk of the novel is told retrospectively taking advantage of the benefit of time to add insight, but it is also building towards a climax in the present.
Knowing early on that Sally is grown up, that she has a fiancé, that she is worried about her parents, puts additional import on the events of the past as she narrates them. Also knowing that nothing has been truly settled for Sally or her parents (or Billy Barnes) keeps the pages turning to see what will happen.
The structure, in which Espach essentially writes a series of novellas set in a particular key time for Sally - Before Kathy’s death, right after Kathy’s death, the end of high school, college, and then essentially in the present as a “Hurricane Kathy” is bearing down on the East Coast - is also very clever. It allows for a years-long arc in Sally’s life to develop over the course of the book while also giving Espach a chance to show off her top-notch skills in writing closely-observed, emotionally resonant scenes. Some the audience reviewers with less enthusiastic responses claim that not enough happens, but - forgive me for my judgement - they are not reading well. Espach layers in important stuff in the spaces between her episodes that pay off brilliantly.
I really admire the control she seems to have over the material. My guess is a lot of hard work went into creating that sense of control.
I don’t know that most readers would find these narrative choices important or noteworthy, but when I really respond to a book, the writer in me starts puzzling out how the thing worked so well. For some, this can be a bummer, like experiencing a delightful magic trick and then spending your time trying to figure out how it was done, but my mind worked this way long before I tried my own hand at writing, as my attempt to write my high school term paper about Tom Wolfe in the voice of Tom Wolfe shows.
I prefer Penn & Teller to David Copperfield too. Revealing the ingenious machinery that powers the illusion only increases my appreciation for the feat.
A great novel can seem like a magic trick, or better, some kind of genuine supernatural miracle, but the truth is, all novels are written by mortals making a series of choices that incrementally add up to the finished product.
Perhaps those choices, made by a single intelligence are a kind of miracle. It does sometimes feel that way.
Espach has obviously taken great care in writing a deeply satisfying novel. It’s the kind of book that makes me delay starting a new book because I just want to savor the experience for a little while longer.
During the year I keep a list of the books that are going to wind up with a “Biblioracle Book Award” and I feel confident that Notes on Your Sudden Disappearance is a strong contender.
My Chicago Tribune column this week explores the potential creation of a new reality competition TV show about writers. Suffice to say, I’m a little skeptical.
A few weeks ago I reacted here to the news of Jumi Bello’s novel being pulled for publication after she admitted to plagiarizing passages in the text. Some interesting developments in the story have been published via a profile of Bello by Johanna Berkman writing at Air Mail. I also recommend reading Lincoln Michel’s perspective on Bello and other writers who seem to be “outsourcing” their originality.
I really enjoyed this essay by Janet Manley considering how contemporary fatherhood is explored in recent fiction (The Great Man Theory) and memoir (Raising Raffi).
What were people reading in the summer of 1972? I wasn’t reading quite yet because I was just over two-years-old, but to see what was flying off the shelves of my mom’s bookstore while I was doing whatever it is two-year-olds do inside a bookstore, check this link out.
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1. Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin
2. Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
3. Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles
4. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
5. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
Pauline H. - Pleasant Prairie, WI
For Pauline, I’m recommending a novel in stories, a structure that can demand a little bit of work from the reader, but pays off brilliantly in Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno.
I know I promised in last week’s newsletter to start sharing additional content made possible by subscribers, but I managed to pick up some fresh freelance work this week which left me a hair short on time to do the rollout justice. I promise that this week you will be receiving bonus content in your inboxes.
Thanks to the subscribers who make this possible.
I still haven’t started reading a new work of fiction after finishing Notes on Your Sudden Disappearance. I have a few things waiting for me in my latest order from The Village Bookseller, but what would you recommend I read next?
Have a lovely rest of your weekend,
Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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