“Vampires,” I picture the big publisher saying from behind his big oak desk as he strokes his big waxy mustache. “Deliver me a vampire book. With romance. And a historical mash-up.” The author, lounging in a buttery leather chair, laughs a sniveling laugh while eyeing the zeroes in his advance check.
Or something like that.
So imagine my surprise when I found myself—me, a debut novelist in a mid-sized Pacific Northwest college town far from the machinations of Big Publishing—in the middle of just such a trend.
Several years ago, I sat down with the idea for a single scene: a teenage girl distributes posters of her missing brother to nearby neighborhood stores, only to get in a fight with a convenience store clerk who refuses to hang it. Thus began my novel, The Local News, the story of 15-year-old Lydia Pasternak, who struggles—often ambivalently—to come to terms with the disappearance of her 18-year-old brother. In choosing this story, I had unwittingly become part of a groundswell: disappearance literature.
By disappearance lit, I don’t mean mystery novels that center on a missing person; those have been around as long as the genre. I’m talking about literary fiction with a missing person—and most popularly, a missing child or teen—at the center.
My first hint that something larger was afoot came a month after I’d sold my book. The New York Times Sunday Magazine ran a feature about an upcoming debut novelist (like me) who’d not sold his book until he was 38 (like me) and who had a missing boy at the center of it (like me). The book was Beautiful Children, the author, Charles Bock. The description of his novel sounded so different than mine—in focus, scope, structure—it was easy to dismiss this as coincidence and nothing more.
I knew no author had the corner on a particular story. Certainly, I was aware of the famous missing children books that had preceded mine: Jacquelyn Mitchard’s Deep End of the Ocean was Oprah’s premiere pick (and the recent sequel, No Time to Wave Goodbye, also features an abducted child). Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones continues to grace bestseller lists thanks to the recent movie adaptation.
But still, I was a bit bewildered when several months before publication, I happened upon an Advanced Reader’s Copy of Stewart O’Nan’s Songs for the Missing. It was to be published almost exactly three months before The Local News. I flipped to the back cover and read “popular high school student Kim Larsen disappeared from her small Midwestern town . . . As desperate search parties give way to pleading television appearances and private investigations yield to personal revelation, we see one town’s intimate struggle to maintain hope and, finally, to live with the unknown.”
Popular high school student Danny Pasternak disappears from a small Midwestern town in my novel. And there are search parties and television appearances and private investigations that yield to personal revelations. And a town struggling to maintain hope and live with the unknown.
To be aware of your predecessors is one thing. But to realize you may have tapped into some part of the zeitgeist as you sat alone in your study hashing out your ideas over a number of years is another. It called into question for me the nature of originality, the limits to individual creativity and the idea of ownership over art.
What was mine? What was O’Nan’s? What was everyone’s?
For those who think I was over-reacting and that three books hardly constitute a trend, behold a quick scan of recent book deals: Kristina Riggle’s forthcoming Heritage Hill features a missing teenager, Hannah Pittard’s The Fates Will Find Their Way, a missing girl, Cara Hoffman’s So Much Pretty, a young woman who disappears, Amy Greene’s Long Man, a missing little girl, and finally Sarah Braunstein’s plainly titled, The Sweet Relief of Missing Children, three intertwined storylines of abduction and running away.
The ground continues to swell. The question is why. What about this topic has captured the imagination of so many writers at this particular moment?
The reality, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, is there are 800,000 missing kids reported each year. However, the number of “stereotypical” kidnappings—stranger abductions in which children are murdered, ransomed or kept permanently—is 115.
A child has a nearly four times better chance of falling off her bed to her death (450 per year) or being killed by an oncoming train (449) than of being abducted. Yet abductions people today’s literary fiction with the ubiquity of fender benders.
Says Amy Greene of the forthcoming Long Man, “For me—and I’m sure for other authors—writing is a form of therapy, a safe way of confronting, acting out and thinking through my fears. As a mother, my greatest fear is losing a child.”
Certainly there has to be some truth to this notion. Perhaps authors—and readers—are confronting one of our most daunting fears through the safe remove of fiction. Couldn’t the same be said about war novels or horror movies or disaster epics? Art offers relatively risk-free exploration of the monsters in our closets.
This accounts for why authors would write about missing kids; it doesn’t answer the question of why everybody’s doing it right now.
O’Nan, in a 2008 interview, said that he was inspired to write Songs for the Missing because of a long-ago night he spent searching for a missing couple as a teenager. They were found, safe and sound, but the experience haunted him.
Cara Hoffman views the issue more journalistically. “I see writing about abduction and disappearance in So Much Pretty the way I see writing about anything that happens in our day-to-day lives. It is less a part of a literary trend than it is reporting.” she says. “These things are the sea in which we swim. In the United States three women a day are murdered by intimate partners. Sometimes it’s known right away what happened, sometimes they disappear and no one knows for months, years, maybe generations, maybe never.”
And then there are the authors interested in turning our notions of missing children on their heads. Braunstein says: “One of my goals was to write a book in which a missing girl, a girl whom society sees as a victim, may in fact find her own kind of power and strength, even in the worst circumstances.”
Author motivations prove to be as eclectic and diverse as imagination itself. Which puts me back where I started: Nowhere, really.
When I think about my own decision to write about a missing kid, one thing comes to mind: I never intended to write a book about a missing kid. I intended to write a coming of age story about a bookish, socially awkward 15-year-old girl. The disappearance of her brother was meant primarily as backdrop.
The horrors of adolescence—the bottomless insecurity, the feeling of vulnerability, the sense of never really knowing what is coming next, of being out of control—seemed perfectly matched to the horrors of a missing child. Or to put another way: a missing kid seemed the perfect metaphor for adolescence. The specter of the missing older brother only heightened the terrible sense of unknowing that permeates Lydia’s adolescence.
So if I extend that idea more broadly, where are we in post-9/11 America, if not the awkward adolescence of our country? Gone are our childhood beliefs of immortality. Gone, the untested ideas of invincibility. We carry with us now a collective vulnerability—amidst orange alerts and offices of Homeland Security and do-not-fly lists—which is relatively new territory for writers in our 20s or 30s or even 40s.
We live, in other words, in the age of rare—though no less ubiquitously touted—dangers.
So perhaps the allure of the missing child trope is that it serves as a collective metaphor, offering a way to work through the uncertainty of our country’s teen years.
There is something satisfying about this theory. So weighty! So culturally relevant! So of the moment!
Except I sense I still don’t quite have it right. The theory is perhaps too of the moment. Everything today can be explained as post-9/11. Health care reform? Electric cars? Tea Partiers? Post-9/11.
My days and weeks spent thinking about this bring to mind Jenny Gordon, an ace Jungian analyst whom I’d spent years sitting across from. I call her to ask if the idea of the collective unconscious—the notion that the same archetypes reside deep in all of our psyches—could account for disparate authors writing about the same subject matter at the same time, unbeknownst to each other.
In a word, she told me: Yes.
“It’s like the 100th monkey,” Gordon says, referring to the theory that when a100th monkey gains knowledge of a new idea, it tips that idea from individual to collective consciousness. In other words: We authors are the 101st, 102nd, 103rd monkeys who’ve tapped into this idea of missing kids just as it’s passed the tipping point into collective knowledge.
“Imagine we were talking about a repeated image coming up in a number of different people’s dreams,” Gordon continues. “We’d say this is compensation. The unconscious mind is compensating for something the conscious mind is neglecting. The collective unconscious brings the neglected idea into consciousness.”
So by writing about missing kids writers are bringing something neglected into the consciousness of the culture. What, though? The idea of caring for our young? Of needing to be more vigilant or careful?
I can buy that. In this age of catastrophes—economic, environmental, political—I see how we might need some reminders to take better care of future generations. There’s something downright seductive about this theory: The author, instead of being a narcissist or a neurotic, is a hero! We’re unconsciously trying to save the world!
But I am nagged, again, by the fear that I’ve packaged up a tidy explanation for something that is ultimately inexplicable.
Perhaps there is no answer.
Or perhaps there are some ideas that gather in the larger imagination like tumbleweed—a tangle of what scares us and what we don’t understand and what speaks to our vulnerability and to our humanity. Maybe the missing child is one of those ideas. And until we run out of ways to tell the story or begin to untangle it or simply exhaust ourselves, it will continue with undeniable—if indefinable—momentum. So when we look in the streets of the literary landscape, there it will be still: tumbling tumbling tumbling.
Miriam Gershow lives in Eugene OR, where she is at work on her second novel, KNOCK KNOCK, in which no one disappears. Hear her read selections of Ken Kesey’s unpublished work with five other local authors this Thursday (12/2) from 5:30-7pm at Opus VII Gallery in Eugene as a Benefit for the UO Knight Library’s Kesey Collection.