“If the study of words has taught Peter—and therefore me—anything it’s the ease of lying. Each word is a sham, a small, meaningless collection of sound that pretends to be not: cat, house, husband. All fops at a costume bowl. And everyone accepts this banter as if words, dressed in their masks and cloaks of consonants, were not pretending. We are all complicit, Peter once told me: Just by saying good morning to a neighbor, one participates in the great lie. And then, of course, there’s the pun on lying, But maybe you know this.”
-From “Traces,” (Page 72)
In Deborah Willis’ Vanishing and Other Stories, the reader is given the privilege to observe and explore the structure of lies and deceptions. Composed of fourteen stories, published by Harper Collins, it is a debut collection that renders masterfully the labyrinth of lies and presents how, inevitably, overtime, all secrets are uncovered, all lies are unleashed, only to invade and alter the lives of its keepers and all those who are part of the great design.
In “Vanishing,” the protagonist, Tabitha, looks to her childhood and her adolescent years to make sense of why her father, Nathan, suddenly disappeared from her family’s life. Constantly haunted by Nathan’s memory, through the volumes of plays that he wrote before his departure, Tabitha revisits the moments she spent in the attic of their home, in her father’s study, while he wrote, and the prevalent presence of Lev, a friend and colleague of Nathan, in their lives. Years go by, and Tabitha is reunited with Lev, for a few seconds, in a street, in the middle of buying groceries. And in the short time spent exchanging greetings, Tabitha arrives at a realization, which is withheld from the readers. The story concludes in a very beautiful ambiguous note, hinting that Tabitha may have already found out why her father disappeared years ago and the heartbreak behind it. But she goes on, without having to deal with the grand epiphany, participating in a lie which altered the way her life unfolded.
In “The Weather,” the broken life of a single father is given light. Left by his wife, the protagonist, is left to take care of Edith, his only daughter. When Edith begins bringing home one of her friends, the beautiful Rae, the loneliness that he has kept at bay for so long begins to weigh down on him, strangely producing an attraction and affinity for the rebellious guest that sits at his table and wears his wife clothes. As the relationship deepens, the readers are given the remnants of the man who drove his away, and the emergence of a newer man, one that the family needed in the past.
The third story in the collection, “Escape,” we are told of the moving tale of a doctor, Tom, who just lost his wife to a terrible disease. In his attempts to deal with the tragic loss, he finds himself enthralled by the lights and the thick air of thrill and excitement inside a casino. There, Tom meets a woman in her late-forties, a black jack dealer, a woman who “runs her table with serious efficiency,” which he finds mysterious and captivating. The protagonist, as he spends night-after-night in the casino, in the black jack table, losing all his money, losing control over his life, is enamored by the woman’s hands, which to him is, “not a young woman’s hands: the skin is creased, and veins reach down her wrists like dark ropes.” Pretty soon, his addiction deepens, and spirals out of control, only to realize that the gambling and his obsession for the woman is simply nothing more but a denial of the reality he has to come to grips with after his wife’s death.
“Traces,” on the other hand, is a 2nd person point-of-view narrative that focuses on the protagonist, Mimi, directly addressing the woman who’s having an affair with her husband: us, or more appropriately, the “narrative-you.” Highly reminiscent of Lorrie Moore’s short story from Self-Help, “How to be An Other Woman,” the story follows Mimi’s attempts to discover the identity of the woman sleeping with her husband. Assisted by her neighbor and dear friend April, she visits the home of the “other woman,” observing the surroundings, immersing herself in the normality of things. Mimi steals one of the woman’s kitties, a petty revenge, just so she could feel how it is to have something stolen from her. At the end of the story, she encounters an even greater deception as she looks over towards April’s house, and returns to the other woman’s home to give the creature she stole back.
And in the poignant “Sky Theatre,” the fleetingness of beauty and youth is explored as a young woman explores her own life and future when the most popular and beautiful student in her school is suddenly put into a wheel chair after a horrible accident.
It is a debut collection enjoyable, and at time, utterly heartbreaking. The language Willis’ employs is precise and clear-cut. It does not play games nor does it reel in anguish and pain to invoke a cathartic reaction from the readers. All it intends to do is to tell the story and that is what it does. Although I appreciate this authorial gesture, this also becomes one of the minor problems of the stories. In some parts, in its strong desire to simply tell us the story, it robs us of the sensual experience we can get from the text, like the poetic feel of the locale, the seething heat of hatred or of passion or the coldness of loneliness and solitude. It sometimes run through, and does not, in the words of Umberto Eco, “linger in the fictional woods.”
The true gem of the collection can be seen in the character that inhabits its stories. Willis’ characters have the capability to become inviting, despite their mysterious and elusive nature. At the beginning of story, even with all my attempts to try and look at the text critically, I cannot help but invest in these characters. They are simple, normal, average even, therefore understandable. But their secrets, their secrets that anyone could keep, that anyone could possess, emotional, deadly, shallow, traumatic or otherwise, complicates them, makes them complex and infinitely interesting, We go along for the ride and hope we share the secrets with them. And we learn a thing or two about secrets, about how, even in the quietest of moments, in the presence of stillness, the greatest secrets, one that could destroy lives and relationships, are created. We learn that there are some truths which are better abandoned as secrets, that there are some people, like the protagonist of “Vanishing” and “Traces” who would rather feign indifference rather than face the terrible implications and repercussions of fact and reality. And we learn that, worst of all, secrets are done not just by action, but by thought. These are things that we are already aware of, of course, but to feel it, relate to it, is a gift that Willis give to us, and for this, we are grateful for her exposition.
Vanishing and Other Stories is what any author could hope for in his/her first book. It is touching, poignant, unafraid to showcase talent and explore subjects that are compellingly difficult, and most of all, adequate enough to hold the readers in her thrall, excited at the next book she will write and publish.