Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
“The one who comes to question himself cares for mankind.”
– Kenneth Patchen
Journalist Laura Smith, who serves as Managing Editor at Timeline.com, has really stepped out with her debut memoir, The Art of Vanishing. Even in this day and age, in the age of text everything now, people remain reticent about telling of the real things that make them tick. They’re even more mum about what they really feel about their intimate relationships and marriages.
Just ask someone you know why they got married. They’ll likely hem and haw, stumbling for words that end in incomplete answers. I think the reason for their inability to answer is steeped in the fact that they just don’t know themselves. Sadly, so many people get married for so many wrong reasons: Societal and family pressure; blind panic over age – that biological clock keeps ticking and “if we’re gonna have kids we got to do it soon;” and of course, fear of the self/loneliness. In turn, marriage for the wrong reasons often ends in divorce, in resentment for the other that borders on hatred.
Baby-boomers might remember that this theme made regular appearances on the 1950s television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In the series, Hitchcock and his cadre of writers were masters at confronting the intricate contradictions inherent to spousal relationships. As artists, they asked tough questions and made bold statements, forcing the audience to question themselves. A fine example of this comes in the form of the 1959 Hitchcock episode, “Arthur,” in which a psychopathic rancher artfully dissects the man-woman dynamic.
And Smith proves just as bold in The Art of Vanishing. Via a meticulous investigation of writer Barbara Newhall Follett, Smith embarks on a deep dissection of her own life and sensibilities. As background, Follett was a literary prodigy who couldn’t tolerate the stiff and stilted confines of a practical life and routinized marriage. Instead, she was thirsty for motion and movement; at the age of 25, she literally ran away and disappeared with a notebook and a few bucks – the ultimate act of staking claim to your life. Follett’s story preceded Jack Kerouac’s On the Road by nearly 2 decades, but it nonetheless parallels the iconic novel in myriad ways, most notably in chanting that we owe ourselves, and not other people, a duty of fulfillment.
Smith discovered Follett at 25 (at roughly the same age the novelist was when she fell from sight), and the story swallowed her whole. At the time, Smith was also secretly questioning whether marriage was the right thing for her. Questioning whether she wanted to be with one person. Questioning whether she wanted to live in a practical routine, sacrificing future moments of discovery out on Jack Kerouac’s open road. And Smith writes:
“Occasionally, I had a daydream about having a conversation with an elderly me. In the daydream, old me is propped up by pillows on her deathbed, a white comforter draped over her lap. Her hair is long and white, arranged in a bun on the top of her head. She points her gnarled old lady finger at me. ‘You weren’t brave enough,’ she says with withering finality. ‘You got one chance, and you blew it.’ Her words and dismissive demeanor sting. She is right. I am scared and awfully tempted to pursue only comfort.” (At page 105).
The way Smith tells her story is truly compelling. I am talking about throwing doors wide open so she can bare real secrets, sharing her deepest thoughts about herself – flaws and all. You will note that in the opening paragraph to this review, I used the word guts. And that’s just what it takes to question yourself on this level – exploring radical ideas like open marriage arrangements where people are connected to more than one mirror simultaneously.
Initially, you might recoil at some of the things Smith says here, but in your belly, you will know that much of it is dead-on-true. In reality, what Laura Smith is writing about is what a huge segment of the populous wants but is afraid to pursue. In truth, most people are addicted to “safe.” Moreover, most of us are deathly afraid of how the world perceives us, afraid of what our acquaintances might think if we ran away and fed ourselves rather than feeding the needs of other people. And going further, to compensate for these competing impulses we erect walls – religion; parents; financial security; kids – these contrivances keep our boots in check, focused on the narrow path.
However, instead of doing this, Smith rebelled. In a sense, her story ends as a modern day extension of James Joyce’s The Dead wherein we witness an assemblage of suddenly lifeless masks come to question their actions – but only after its too late to alter the path. Yet, contrary to Joyce’s village, Smith bangs at the wall while there’s still time to make changes. And she writes:
“I told myself we couldn’t turn back. If we called it off, we would always wonder, and wondering would torment us. We looked at each other, blinking almost wistfully, shaking our heads and occasionally laughing because it was all so absurd.” (At page 150).
The Art of Vanishing is a true statement of courage made by a woman bent on not being a liar, by a woman refusing to lie to herself. As such, Smith steps out on the ultimate journey of the scribe – that being, to tell the reader things about themselves that they know, yet cannot say. Look close here, carefully referring back to Joyce’s The Dead: Has Laura Smith told you anything about yourself that you’re too afraid to say aloud to anyone or anything save that shadow in the corner hiding under the moonlit shelf?
The audio version of this book mandates a mention, because it captures the intensity of the work in the sound of Smith’s own voice, allowing the reader to hear the author reinterpret the texture and tone of the narrative in real time. Go here to sneak a listen.