MARCH 18, 2016
IF YOU WERE INCLINED to judge books by their covers, you might accuse Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear and Raphael Montes’s Perfect Days, translated by Alison Entrekin, of being in conspiracy with one another. The covers both feature suitcases and employ interchangeable typefaces. Between the covers are even more surface similarities: both novels are set in Brazil; both begin in Rio de Janeiro and then hopscotch around the country. Both tell stories of writers on the run, feature plots that rely on grisly kidnappings, and are haunted by Brazil’s great Modernist genius, Clarice Lispector.
There the similarities end. In fact, the books couldn’t be more different. One I found virtually unputdownable; the other filled me with the urge to send it sailing across the room.
Novey’s novel begins with the beloved Brazilian novelist, Beatriz Yagoda, climbing into an almond tree and disappearing, setting off waves of panic whose ripples reach Beatriz’s American translator, Emma Neufeld, in Pittsburgh. The corollary is clear: Beatriz is a figure with a hold on the popular imagination that Lispector would undoubtedly enjoy if she were alive today. The relationship between Emma and the author is less clear, but one we’re nonetheless encouraged to make when we consider that Novey translated Lispector’s novel The Passion According to G.H. for New Directions in 2012.
In The Complete Stories, the massive compendium of Clarice Lispector’s short stories translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson, editor Benjamin Moser writes, “Clarice Lispector was no respecter of genres.” That delightful turn of phrase can also be applied to Idra Novey. Indeed, after translating Lispector’s novel she published a sequence of poems about the experience before turning to a novel of her own. Ways to Disappear defies convention and categorization, effortlessly careening from magical realism to noir, reckless romance to metafictional dictionary definitions. The result is a story as propulsive as it is compelling.
Emma, against her boyfriend’s wishes, takes off for Brazil, believing her connection to Beatriz will help solve the mystery of her sudden disappearance. “Emma had gradually come to trust her understanding of her author’s impulses more than she did her own. If she couldn’t find Beatriz, she couldn’t find anyone.”
However, Beatriz’s motive for taking a one-way trip up an almond tree is monetary, not literary. After racking up astonishing losses playing online poker, Beatriz finds herself in debt to an unsavory character whose capacity for violence is terrifyingly real.
“Emma translated the [ransom] note several times, as if there were a chance that if she went over it again she might be able to come up with a less horrifying version, or could modify it so that it would suggest something slightly different.”
As Novey’s novel of literary whimsy takes a dark turn, Emma enters into a reluctant alliance with Beatriz’s adult children — Marcus, who welcomes Emma’s presence, and Raquel, who does not. With the help of Beatriz’s first publisher, Emma plunges into a world she scarcely understands and is ill-equipped to handle — or at least that’s what her boyfriend back in Pittsburgh keeps telling her. Undeterred, Emma doggedly pursues Beatriz with a messianic fervor recognizable to Lispector’s hardcore fans.
“She’d spent her life desperate to measure exactly how much she knew, and what had it gotten her?”
In this respect, Emma is reminiscent of the young women in many of Lispector’s stories, her early ones in particular, who yearn to live life on their own terms yet are sensitive to the demands of the real world. In Lispector’s short story “The Escape,” the protagonist dreams of embarking on a voyage aboard a ship that will take her away from her unhappy life, only to realize that she can’t afford the ticket. In another early story, “Gertrudes Asks for Advice,” a teenager comes to the understanding that “greatness was impossible in surroundings such as hers.”
Emma’s predicament is a metaphor for the translator’s dilemma: she is dutiful to a fault yet longs to be free. Only by running off to Rio to search for her beloved Beatriz does Emma realize how strongly she wants to escape her meticulously ordered existence.
Raphael Montes’s Perfect Days serves as a primer on how not to disappear, especially if you’re the perpetrator of a violent crime.
Teo Avalar is a lonely medical student who spends his days studying and his nights caring for his disabled mother. His best friend is a cadaver named Gertrude. He’s not what you would call a people person. So when he gets fixated on a young screenwriter named — wait for it — Clarice, it’s not giving too much away to say that his approach to winning her over is a bit unorthodox.
Teo follows Clarice to a park where she engages in an impromptu photo session with a friend. He hangs back and spies on the young women while they review the photos on Clarice’s digital camera. “Teo wanted to see them, to have them for himself, including those that had been summarily deleted. From a distant tree, he also photographed Clarice, but with his eyes, saving the images in his memory between one click and another.”
That awkward scene inspires Teo to take further action. With the aid of massive amounts of sedatives and recently purchased bondage gear, Teo clumsily kidnaps Clarice and eventually takes her to a secluded cabin in Teresópolis and then to a beachfront bungalow on Ilha Grande. This coincides with Clarice’s plans to go on a sabbatical of sorts and work on her screenplay, the eponymous Perfect Days, so her disappearance doesn’t cause undue alarm, leaving Teo with plenty of time to repeatedly drug, subdue, and offer writing tips to his captive companion.
Teo never let Clarice read the newspaper or watch TV. He had taken the batteries out of the remote, as he thought it better for her not to know what was going on in the outside world: complete isolation would help her finish the screenplay. Besides, it was important that she distance herself a little from reality so she could think about him. Without the distraction of soap operas or the violence of the news, she’d have more time to better consider the relationship they were building.
Reading Perfect Days feels a bit like being kidnapped by the author’s protagonist. The entire novel is told from Teo’s perspective, and there’s no respite from his twisted worldview. Despite Teo’s abhorrent behavior, he remains convinced that eventually Clarice will come around and give him a chance, which leads to dialogue that feels strangely whiny and would not be out of a place in a teen romance. At least Clarice is given a sedative.
One of the more telling scenes in Perfect Days occurs when Teo presents Clarice with a book by Clarice Lispector. The edition is conveniently hefty and when the romance doesn’t go Teo’s way, he uses it to strike Clarice on the head and knock her unconscious. The scene is emblematic of the books many flaws: odiously unfunny and lacking in subtlety.
Perfects Days smirks at the reader: “See what I’m doing here?” Well, yes, of course we see. There’s nothing else to see. The prose is flat, the characters shallow, the voice relentlessly laconic. There’s nothing left but the story, which chugs along from one improbable turn to the next.
Montes’s novel ends with a curiously creepy author’s note: “[I]t is perfectly possible to hide a petite woman in a large suitcase with wheels. I have tried it and it works.”
“Perfectly possible” does not equal reasonably plausible. Yes, it’s possible that a psychopath could use a large suitcase to convey his drugged victim out of her apartment. But each time the suitcase is used as a mode of transportation, and it’s used a lot, the reader becomes increasingly reluctant to suspend disbelief.
One senses a touch of exasperation in the author’s note that comes, perhaps, from having to explain the story’s implausible plot mechanics to dubious early readers. It reminds me of an episode of The Sopranos when Christopher Moltisanti seeks screenwriting advice from Jon Favreau. Of course, what Moltisanti wants is validation not criticism. When Favreau brings up a problematic scene, Moltisanti latches on to an easy fix, albeit a ridiculous one that feels tacked on and solves nothing. In other words, Perfect Days’s problems go a lot deeper than whether or not a petite person can fit into a suitcase.
In his profile of Clarice Lispector in The New Yorker, Moser writes: “Hers is an art that makes us want to know the woman; she is a woman who makes us want to know her art.” Ways to Disappear is both an affirmation of that statement and a reminder that great art is a gateway to self-discovery.
Does Moser’s observation hold the same weight in 21st-century Brazil where Lispector’s work casts a long and terrible shadow? While Novey’s earnest and heartfelt homage is as exhilarating as it is artful, Montes’s violence toward the headstrong and free-spirited seeker who shares Lispector’s name feels somehow disrespectful. Killing your idols is one thing, but torturing them is quite another. Perhaps Montes is resentful of Lispector’s place in Brazilian literature. Perhaps killing off Clarice is his way of saying it’s his turn now …
In “Another Couple of Drunks,” one of the last short stories Lispector wrote in 1941 before turning to Near to the Wild Heart, the novel that made her an overnight sensation in Brazil while she was still in her early 20s, the narrator breaks into a monologue about the moon:
Listen up, pal, the moon is way up in the sky. Aren’t you scared? The helplessness that comes from nature. The moonlight, think about it, that moonlight, paler than a corpse’s face, so silent and far away, that moonlight witnessed the cries of the first monsters to walk the earth, surveyed the peaceful waters after the deluges and the floods, illuminated centuries of nights and went out at dawns throughout centuries … Think about it, my friend, that moonlight will be the same tranquil ghost when the last traces of your great-grandsons’ grandsons no longer exist. Prostrate yourself before it. You’ve shown up for an instant and it is forever.
Listen up, pals. Lispector is that moon. Novey knows it. So does Moser. Montes’s monsters walk among us but only for an instant while Lispector is forever. Prostrate yourselves.