Caps, Coitus, and Caipirinhas

Martha Gellhorn, her late ex-husband, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Hunter Thompson walk into a bar. Gellhorn orders a mojito, Hemingway demands gin, Marquez cracks a bottle of local beer, and Thompson loudly asks to be shown the bottle of Wild Turkey winking at him from behind the bar. They’ve traversed time and space to descend on this little bar on Chicago’s South Side. Thompson thinks about the gun in his belt. Hemingway thinks about the one in his hand. But they haven’t come to shoot, drink, and reminisce about the golden age of print journalism. No, they’ve come to fulfill a higher purpose: picking out an author and novel to carry their legacy on into the 21st century. Someone whose penchant for quick, incisive, dynamic narrative and the subtle beauty of the language can weave a story full of romance, intrigue, and foreign affairs. This author is Idra Novey, and this novel is Ways to Disappear.

Blistering in pace but somehow leisurely in its sentence structure, Idra Novey’s debut novel has made an immediate mark on the literary community. Former contributor to The New Yorker and Professor of Literature at Trinity College Francisco Goldman, quoted on the homepage of Novey’s website, described it as “the most sublime novel I’ve read in a long time” (1). The novel also appeared on the New York Times’ editor’s choice list, and Kirkus called it a “delightful and original Tour de Force” (1). Few authors could dream of bursting onto the scene with such glaring intensity; even Thompson’s The Rum Diary is hotly rivaled by this book.

Novey’s first outing in original prose after a career of translations and poetry collections, Ways to Disappear tells the story of Emma Neufeld, a Portuguese-to-English translator living in Philadelphia. Talented, ambitious, and impulsive, Emma lives with Miles, her boyfriend of five years, working exclusively on translating the work of enigmatic Brazilian novelist Beatriz Yagoda. The novel begins with a single page describing Yagoda climbing into a tree with a heavy suitcase and promptly disappearing. When the news of her author’s disappearance reaches Emma, she leaves Miles to his own devices and takes off for Rio, determined to track down the whereabouts of her idol.

Time flies for us as readers, Novey’s often fleeting chapters flying off the pages faster than I can turn them. Once in Rio, Emma makes the acquaintance of Flamenguinho, a loan shark who makes it perfectly clear to our hero that Yagoda owes him a massive sum of money, and that she had better turn up soon, or else. With this information, Emma seeks out Raquel and Marcus, Yagoda’s children whose starkly disparate personalities bring out Novey’s uncanny ability to create tension in a scene. Raquel, whose eyes “were small and suspicious, her default expression one of displeasure”, and Marcus, whose gaze is described as “sensual and sleepy”, team up with Emma to find a way out of the situation they’ve found themselves in. A wealthy publishing house, an online poker addiction, a severed ear; a torrid, if not painfully predictable, love affair; this adventure has it all.

One of my favorite aspects of this novel is Novey’s penchant for time and place. Throughout the novel, we’re greeted with perfect details of just how Brazilian this story is. Constant mentions of cachaça and brigadeiros, reference after reference to the blazing sun, and a nagging reminder that getting the police involved will only make things worse stick the reader right in the heart of Rio. Novey also employs the broadcast of two radio DJs chiming in every ten or fifteen chapter to frame the story from an outside perspective. All this put together makes for an intensely localized novel. So deep-seated are the references to Brazilian culture that my Brazilian-descended girlfriend has just about reached her tipping point with my stupid questions. She couldn’t believe I didn’t know what a caipirinha was.

In the thick of the novel, Emma recalls a story Yagoda once told her about a man who was killed by a creeping blue fungus—a story which both captures the overarching theme of Ways to Disappear and flashes Novey’s talent for the beauty of language:

“An old man got into bed with the only book he’d ever owned and found that a blue fungus had begun to bloom over the words. The man tried to pick off the fungus with his fingernails. He knew the sentences by heart but he still opened the book for the pleasure of the letters, of seeing them form the words he already knew. Yet the more fungus he scraped off, the bluer his hands became. By the time someone from the village found the old man deceased in his bed, they couldn’t tell where the fungus on the pages ended and the old man’s blued hands began.”

 
At its core, Ways to Disappear is a look at the inner workings of a translator’s mind; an attempt to encapsulate what it means to let a text or series of texts totally consume you. With a skilled tongue and gift for delivering high-energy narrative in a graceful, methodical way, Idra Novey has crafted a story any of the previously mentioned authors would read with pride. Fans of criminal intrigue, foreign adventure, forbidden romance and the frustrating reality of siding always with one’s passion would do themselves right by seeking out this book straight away.

 

WAYS TO DISAPPEAR

By Idra Novey

258 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $25.

 

 

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