Saturday, July 07, 2007

The New Yorker: "If I Vanished" by Stuart Dybek

The theme is vanishing (memory, girlfriend, donut girl, cars in snow, tire tracks, digital pictures, etc.). Ceil has dumped Jack after asking him the question “What would you do if I vanished?” He doesn’t handle the question well but after she does vanish he watches the movie she said it was a quotation from. Except he doesn’t hear the lines spoken (they vanished?). But he does imagine Ceil with her ex-lover Dom and the thought of her doing essentially the same thing with him, except more literally since Dom has pictures of her on his computer and Jack has none of any kind. And then, as if the movie is being watched again from the beginning, Ceil asks Jack the same question. He does better this time, but the implication is clear: she’s met someone else. I like Dybek’s work and in this story I enjoy the ride and the overuse of the vanishing trope, but in the end I’m not happy with the “groundhog day” notion that this is a loop that will repeat endlessly. Unless I’m supposed to be taking something else away from that ending. So: liked it, didn’t love it.

July 9 & 16, 2007: “If I Vanished” by Stuart Dybek

6 comments:

bevjackson said...

I was so eager to read this. (I loved that illustration, for one thing!)
But there was the STRANGEST lack of energy in this story. It made me tired to read it, and I thought I'd have fled (like Ceil) in a N.Y. second, if I had to endure this slow, lethargic character.

It left me exhausted and not happy with it.

Andy Henderson said...

Hey there,

I similarly was left lukewarm after reading this, except only with a feeling that I was missing something. For example, the scene at Dunkin' Doughnuts felt cinematic, as if the main character were acting in a modern day western, and that the surreal emptiness outside in the snow got so much attention -- I was left wondering if the whole story, or parts of it, were from his dreamworld, where the girl of his recurring dreams repeatedly vanished despite his best and worst efforts. That's why she doesn't have a face; she's more so a feeling than anything else. I think I'll give it a second read and a bit more thought.

Either way, I thought the opening back and forth was forced and going in too many directions without verisimilitude leading the way.

The illustration was great, though.

Clifford Garstang said...

I hope that wasn't dreamworld, which always feels phony to me, but you may be right. I also wondered, since Dybek has a novel coming out, if this isn't an excerpt from that and that's the reason this feels incomplete. TNY seems to do that often and I wish they would tell us it's an excerpt. And "lukewarm" is the right word for how I felt; seems to capture my reaction to a disappointingly large number of TNY stories . . .

Thanks for your great comments bev and andy!

Pamela E said...

I was carried along by this sotry and didn't feel the lack of energy others did. At the end I had no idea what to make of it but was left with the sense of having been taken somewhere somewhat frightening. Dybuk is not dealing with "safe" material here -- the relationship between Ceil and her ex is definitely unsettling. Thanks, Cliff, for bringing out some elements I overlooked. I feel I have to go back and reread (and yes, it would be annoying to learn this was not a complete story but part of a novel).

Anonymous said...

The story was outstanding. I really enjoyed the intense focus on objects, facts, etc. It read like an essay early on. I was confused by the ending as well though. I don't think it's as clear cut as others seem to be making it out to be. The ending doesn't necessarily say that she was actually seeing someone else and is therefore in a loop. The ending, I thought, could be about how he was wrong when he said "Well, see, that's a different questions." becuase it turns out, that if she did leave him for another person then the result would be the same. So, it's not a different question. That's an alternate read and one that makes me feel less angry with the ending.

Janice said...

I loved this piece. I felt a tension and impatience with Jack early on, wanting him to stop inventing scenarios for Ceil's vanishing, and to just answer it, or try. His insisting on a made-up context would put some distance between himself from the discomforting question... he is happy to answer if what they're talking about is an imagined film role or fantasy, but he can't seem to connect to the question from his own shoes. Throughout the story I see repetitions of this theme, and a longing to snap out of it, to connect more directly with the world. He imagined that the dunkin' donuts waitress would be perfect for the role of... herself, in a movie, but is also annoyed that the conversation feels "scripted" and he counters this by holding onto his experience of the snow and music as "real".

The conversation at the of the story, I think, is another of his one-way conversations with Ceil, this one another effort to answer this question that has stuck with him for so long. He gives it several earnest tries (which in their spirit reminded me of the children's book "Runaway Bunny") but it's the paragraph that starts "After a while, I'd do nothing but go day by day without you...." where I think he finally gets to the core, the truth, now that she is gone.