WITHIN HOURS of arriving in a foreign country, the protagonist in Vendela Vida’s new novel has her backpack stolen, losing all her money and ID. The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, like its protagonist, loses no time in engaging a question that epitomizes what the most authentic travel is about: what is it to “have” an identity? While we remain firmly entrenched in our lives and our locales, we forget, or choose to forget, how simple it is to lose one. Vida’s character travels in search of an emotional footing that will become manifest only after upheaval, chaos, and confusion.
Each of Vida’s three previous engrossing and elegant novels has taken travel as a required given: a self-aware, clever, and dry-witted female character finds through travel a way back to what apparently had been lost. One aspect of each plot: nothing much can happen without leaving home.
The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, something of an existential thriller, yields a rich and compelling reading experience. Like each of her previous novels, this one examines a character in pain, identity in flux. In her characteristic style, the book is spare, both ethereal and utterly grounded, and oddly funny.
Vida sets this particular investigation in Casablanca, where her protagonist, a twin, has come in order to escape the pain of a divorce. Immediately set adrift and also strangely unburdened, she does what anyone would do, asking for the help first of the bellboys, then the hotel security crew, eventually calling in the police, and finally going to the US Embassy. There, she sees that the sign “POLICE STATION, NEXT FLOOR” is laminated and she feels encouraged — surely an indication of her desperate state of mind.
At the police station, she is offered someone else’s backpack, which she accepts as if it is her own, checking the passport within and signing a document in the real owner’s name. She decides that, if required to explain why she’s officially accepted someone else’s property, she will say she hasn’t slept in days. The document receives an official stamp. Later, this paper will turn up blank.
With the lost/found/stolen backpack in tow, she enters a shop, intending to use a stranger’s credit card to purchase lost necessities. A shopkeeper, noticing her bad skin, sells her the “perfect” makeup. As her pitted skin gains a new texture, so with a similar odd ease does she assume new names, new attributes, untenable identities.
Each act in search of the lost backpack results only in additional confusion and absurdity. But each seemingly dead-end plot turn — we quickly become accustomed to Vida’s wildly inventive twists — always yields a new fork or path. The protagonist, a swimmer, has “always gained speed on turns; they’ve long been your secret asset as a swimmer. You can feel your mind being cleared. Water does this to you.”
While engrossed in the action, which is swift, we ponder the nature of identity: As the holder of someone else’s passport, is it nonetheless in some sense one’s own? Does possession indicate ownership? Who owns a name? How is ownership claimed? And who is this new smooth-skinned self?
Like a version of Odysseus, the protagonist has many names. Some she chooses, others are pushed on her by circumstance. Each one must be claimed, as disguise, as she makes her way through the nightmare of loss so great it can only be understood as being lost. Only the penultimate name chosen has real, grounded meaning: that of her baby niece whose existence, it will turn out, is central to the plot.
In this place, which is both Casablanca and a Casablanca — only as real as the protagonist’s acute liminality allows — the protagonist’s edges are tenuous.
Along with the (sometimes slap-happy) terror of being improperly, impossibly present in a foreign country, our heroine must negotiate the Kafkaesque confusion of culture. In the marketplace, the protagonist notices that “an elderly toothless woman sits on an upside-down crate and displays a used and cracked asthma inhaler.” The protagonist does not buy the used inhaler, but its symbolism can’t be overlooked: a person without an official identity breathes with difficulty, erratically. And truly, her emotional and existential identity requires official confusion and bungling in order for the true source of her suffering to be unclothed.
In one of the several hotel rooms she inhabits, she removes her scarf, thinking about it, addressing herself: “From your neck you remove your deep orange scarf, a scarf that you packed because it seemed Moroccan to you, or at least the shade of a Moroccan spice.” What is it to be anything at all, categorized, identified? What is Morocco? What is a country? What is a human being, especially one without an official identity? When categories miscarry, what holds meaning? Only the heart. Hers, shrouded, is in shreds.
The narrative is told in the second-person present tense, from inside the protagonist’s mind, directed at herself: “you.” We all talk to ourselves: In fashioning an entire novel as a narrator’s conversation with herself, Vida veers between telling and told selves, so language comes to seem to have at least two meanings. “This is your experience of Casablanca so far: no one can find the address they’re looking for.”
Here, in Casablanca, in the novel, English, Arabic, and French are spoken. The protagonist finds herself comprehending the word “drapeau” in French, flag. What is a flag but a representation? Who, or what does she represent? How is she represented? In her very heart — let’s say the site of a human being’s flag — is a rupture between being and meaning. There is no language beyond the one Vida has invented, a language utterly precise in its depiction of an anxiety so great it creates its own madness. Without a clear, clean translation of self, each act and utterance bodies forth a different identity. As anyone who has traveled or been in the presence of a translated foreign language understands, there tends to be a suspicious discrepancy in the length of any translation. “He describes it in Arabic for five minutes and then takes thirty seconds to explain what he’s said in English.” Translation is open to interpretation. For non-speakers, meaning can easily be hijacked. Who is to say whether a translation is accurate and honest? And then the larger question, the one we ache to know: how to translate this character’s place in existence?
Through the novel, we are given hints of the life that preceded the protagonist’s departure for Casablanca, but we find her identity doubly concealed — from the self as well as from the outside world. And in such doubleness (the protagonist is a twin), there is both utter freedom and its attendant terror: a lostness so intense its pain overwhelms.
“At the home you shared with your husband your cups were bowls, but your thirst was never satisfied.”
In the midst of the protagonist’s fall through psychological space, we watch circumstances bring out the wily part of her nature, which always invents some kind of saving mechanism. When one mechanism, morphed by circumstance, is pierced, she invents another. Watching her mind’s recalibration in this frank internal conversation is one of the great satisfactions of this book.
Vida’s narrative concoction delivers plot, commentary, and existence, at once.
A Hollywood film is being made in Casablanca. Things begin to coalesce in some version of a coherent translation when the protagonist is hired to be the stand-in for a famous actress. She is offered a lucrative job (just when she is entirely out of money) that allows her to be the stand-in for a stand-in. After all, an actress is only playing the part. Or is she?
The neighborhood in Casablanca where the filming will take place is called California, so the protagonist can tell herself: “Tomorrow you will go to California.” It will be a California. As with a human being, so a place may have many names. The novel mocks Platonism: the ideal forms have all been lost. Without their ideals, the forms are free to alter and be altered. Living, they shift. Like us. Vida is seriously playful with the layers of meaning that accrue within the metaphor of acting: “You have memorized your lines, though you know you are probably not expected to. They are not actually your lines. You have to remind yourself of this.”
Within this world, both real and metaphorical, there are ways that anything can come to be, and often in a false, unfulfilling, mirror-reflecting-a-mirror way. What are the boundaries of the original mirror?
“You are putting on a wig so you more closely resemble the way you looked before you weren’t you.”
And of the famous actress, we read: “She looks like an actress in a movie who’s acting interested. You can’t separate how genuine her interest is, or how much she’s playing the part of someone who’s interested. It occurs to you that maybe she can’t tell the difference either. Maybe for her the line is very thin.”
Of herself: “You walk through the part, uttering your lines without forgetting one of them […] For a moment you forget it’s make-believe.”
And later: “The director comes over several times to adjust your body’s posture. ‘Sorry,’ he says. ‘To look natural it is a bit uncomfortable.’”
Just after the director adjusts the protagonist’s posture (on set), she is told to pick a book off the shelf. She chooses one by Rumi and opens to a poem that she reads four times. Its title: “The Diver’s Clothes Lying Empty.” Like the novel, it is written in the second person. The “you” addressed is in many places and many forms at once. “You’re the diver’s clothes/lying empty on the beach. You’re the fish.”
Here, we understand how the novel is a 21st-century dalliance with (and embodiment and interpretation of) the 13th-century poem by the Sufi poet. These two points on the timeline create a more solid translation of the form, mirror-facing-mirror. Eventually, we will learn of the very real point on the timeline of the protagonist’s life that will generate its own matching point in the present moment of the narrative. This will offer a resting place. Anxiety’s constant whirl will subside when she’s able to name her grief and pain.
As the protagonist’s involvement in the film increases, and what’s not real takes on the feeling of reality, Vida probes the existential angst that reveals and hides in its own form of acting —
“The tattooed man escorts you through real Casablanca traffic, until you turn the corner and arrive at the traffic that’s been manufactured for the film.”
“Even you, who know better, can’t seem to forget the traffic isn’t real.”
As when the director maneuvers the protagonist’s body to make it appear more natural, so she exists as a foreigner within the contours of her own bones. “As you untie the belt you feel as though you’re undressing someone else.”
“It occurs to you that prior to this job, her always meant your twin sister.” (Now “her” means the actress the protagonist sometimes stands in for. This book is, very obliquely, but utterly powerfully, about sisters.) To whom, I’d like to ask, prior to this trip, did “you” refer? The novel is an attempt to help us come to have some understanding of who that might be and how.
The protagonist becomes an embodiment of twinness, a twin to and within herself. The real twin is turned into a metaphor. Vida’s character lives in several psychic dimensions at once. Perhaps this is the only way to survive, which is to say: the only way to live.
Casablanca is both a real place and a place in our minds, its existence fertilized by a famous film. Thus, it contains a particularly potent form of doubleness, almost an existential elasticity: a geo-cultural silly putty. Impressions stick and can be erased by simple kneading.
It is in a mosque’s Women’s Gallery (“it could easily fit five thousand women”) that the protagonist in her role as stand-in for the actress moves emotionally back in time so that eventually she can move forward. “You are sobbing and only after a minute do you realize that it’s you who’s sobbing. You are the one making the wailing sounds. You open your eyes.”
Now, the art of acting becomes something as real as life: the director “is asking her” (the actress) “to emulate you.” The protagonist has become her truest self while playing a part: life informs the feelings she portrays. In fact, it is no longer portrayal but fully connected and real.
Here is another comment on how we come to understand what is real: “The displays are exactly what you expected of a spice shop here, and the shop’s popularity with tourists leads you to suspect the shopkeepers have studied pictures in the guidebooks to Morocco. They’re giving the tourists precisely what they pictured Morocco would look like.”
At the end of this short, profound book, the protagonist enters one more labyrinthine maze in search of a lost tourist. Eventually, she is found.
“It was you,” Samantha says.
“What?” you say.
“It was you all along,” says Hazel. […]
“You were the missing person we were looking for,” says the tour guide.
“You’re the person you’ve been looking for!” Samantha says.
“Isn’t that hilarious?”
It both is and isn’t. The Diver’s Clothes depicts existence as a fun house, a film, a television game show, an adventure, a spell of foreign travel. Vida dislodges reality from any casually accepted sense of it, and she asks us to face a far more complicated version of its making and unmaking.