Now You See Them, Now You Don't: Literary Disappearing Acts
Some characters in fiction make an entrance; others’ exits draw more attention. Our list focuses on the latter: literary characters who pull a Houdini and disappear. These departures happen in a variety of different ways: in the dead of night, at a dinner party, and sometimes with an alarming amount of planning and foresight. We think you’ll agree that sometimes the way a character disappears can say more about him or her than their presence. (Fair warning: If you haven’t read the books mentioned here, you may want to be wary of the spoilers below.)
The Semplica Girls
In George Saunders’ unsettling short story “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” from his much-lauded collection Tenth of December, the SGs (as they are fondly called) go missing. In the story, SGs are young women who escape from poverty by signing up to serve as decoration in wealthy Americans’ lawns. The logistics of this involve a microline that is passed through the girls’ brains (part of the “installation” process). The young women are then hoisted and strung in a row like living paper dolls. The story centers on a middle-class family that has gone to extraordinary lengths to be able to afford SGs to hang in their yard. Then, they’re gone. Eventually, it emerges that one of the children, Eva, has freed the girls. Not only is this a felony, but it also spells financial ruin for the family. It also leaves the reader to imagine the SGs, tethered together by a cord running through their brains, wandering through American suburbia.
Sammy Klayman is undeniably the most tragic character in Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-winning opus The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Sam is haunted by self-loathing and shame, particularly regarding his sexual identity. After becoming romantically involved with Tracy Bacon (the man who is the voice of The Escapist on the radio), Sam experiences deep feelings of shame and walks out on the otherwise loving and fulfilling relationship. Later, when Sam is outed as gay on television, he leaves the home he shares with Rosa and Joe without even saying goodbye. Aside from driving the novel, Sam’s disappearing acts are also some of contemporary literature’s most gut-wrenching.
When the beautiful, beloved Amy disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary, her husband Nick is immediately the prime suspect. The evidence is limited, but damning: It seems very apparent from the way furniture is strewn around the room (and Amy’s blood everywhere) that Nick has brutally killed his young wife. Amy, however, is way ahead of Nick on this one. For the past year, she’s been squirreling away thousand of dollars, befriending insufferable neighbors for the purpose of stealing their urine to fake a pregnancy, filling a shed with thousands upon thousands of dollars of unnecessary purchases, and poisoning herself with antifreeze. She wants to frame the cheating Nick for her murder, and has devised a frighteningly complex plot (including falsifying her own journals) to do so. If this isn’t a notable disappearing act, we don’t know what is. We don’t like it, but we certainly can respect the planning and skill it took to execute.
In Ali Smith’s novel, middle-aged protagonist Miles is at a dinner party when he decides to lock himself in an upstairs bedroom and refuse to come out. His self-imposed hermit behavior makes him a minor celebrity, and friends and acquaintances of his slowly gravitate to the scene and tell the story of Miles’ life. This “disappearing act” is an unusual one in literature, because everyone knows exactly where he has gone (said upstairs bedroom). The ensuing drama is less about finding Miles, and more about reaching him.
Tim Farnsworth has it all together before the walking begins. A successful lawyer with a loving family, he’s financially stable and healthy. But then, the episodes start: In the middle of the night, Tim sleepwalks uncontrollably, stopping only when he has exhausted himself—and upon stopping, he falls asleep on the spot, no matter where he is. No surprise, his family can’t stop worrying about the sorts of injuries he might sustain as a result of these trips, and try all sorts of methods to keep him from leaving the house during one of his episodes. Nothing works. Tim sees every kind of doctor, and no one can tell him anything. Tim disappears sporadically, only to be found, until one day he disappears for good: He can’t stop the walking, and his involuntary disappearances (reminiscent of The Time Traveler’s Wife) eventually cost him everything.
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