As a nonfiction writer who has recently turned to fiction, I am compelled to share the essay “Highly Unlikely” by the fabulous Vendela Vida. After years of writing about actual events and being bound by relating the facts in my writing, I have discovered an exciting freedom in writing fiction. The imagination is a powerful thing, and Vida is a writer whose imaginative stories are expansive, unique, and a pleasure to read.
In her essay, Vida writes about the double standard in realistic fiction.
“As readers, we don’t want to read stories that are less interesting than the everyday lives we lead. Do we? And as writers I don’t think we should necessarily have to explain that something did happen in real life to justify a a novel’s unlikely plot. Of course it’s unlikely. That’s why we read. That’s why we write.”
I agree. In her most recent novel The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty the highly unlikely events that unfold are exasperating and thrilling to read. Of course we wouldn’t make the same choices her unnamed narrator makes but isn’t it fun to walk in her shoes along this crazy journey?
I reviewed her book in October in the Post and Courier and wrote:
“The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty” (the title comes from a Rumi poem) is Vendela Vida’s fourth novel and is set in Casablanca, Morocco. The narrator is a recently divorced 33-year-old American woman whose voice is instantly engaging.
As the plane lands on Moroccan soil, her fellow passengers applaud. “The cockpit door is closed, so they’re not clapping for the pilots. They are clapping because their existence persists, because they are not aflame on the tarmac, because they did not disintegrate over the Atlantic. The scattered applause seems too muted a celebration of living, so you chose not to clap.”
This restrained narrator leaves her fellow travelers behind and steps into the chaos of Casablanca where the streets are wild with traffic and smog and the buildings are “dusted with soot.” Deflated, she is dropped at her hotel and within moments discovers her backpack, which contains all the necessary items including her wallet, passport, and laptop, has been stolen. The journey begins.
Vida, a San Francisco native, is the founding editor of The Believer magazine and a board member of 826 Valencia, a nonprofit center co-founded by her husband and best-selling author, Dave Eggers (“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”), that helps local children with writing. Her previous novels have followed a similar terrain of independent women navigating foreign lands.
In The Diver’s Clothes, a nameless narrator, at once sympathetic and unpredictable, adopts the identities of others with an uncanny ease. Accepting a false passport from the local police, she assumes the identity of “Sabine.” Next it’s Megan, then Reeves, Jane and, finally, Aretha. With each new identity she attempts to shed her painful past.
Vida creates mournful scenes where the narrator is vulnerable and lonely, which makes us eager to follow as she dives into the next scene. Maddening in her recklessness (we wonder, who would do that?), the narrator’s illogical, spontaneous decisions are liberating (we think, wouldn’t it be great to do that?).
As Reeves Conway, our narrator becomes a stand-in double in a “medium-budget film with a major American movie star,” and Vida’s wry observations of American filmmaking are comical because we feel like we are in on the secret, as if we too can see the absurdity of it all.
We laugh at the producers who are constantly texting and cursing, and the bodyguards who follow the famous American actress closely but never look anyone in the face, and the local drivers who are always lost and stuck in traffic. As Reeves, the narrator becomes the American actress’ confidant and is gleefully whisked away to private dinners and concerts with Patti Smith before her inevitable downfall.
Glimpses into our narrator’s life are doled out intermittently, which heightens our curiosity and propels the story forward. “This is how it is in these countries, the glasses are so small and you are always thirsty. At the home you shared with your husband, your cups were bowls, but your thirst was never satisfied.”
The narrator reflects on her marriage and how her husband never examined her features closely, how he turned off the lights before they kissed and how she thought that was what she wanted.
“You thought with him you could be invisible, until you realized that wasn’t at all what you wanted.” Vida cleverly unravels the story as the narrator stumbles her way through Casablanca, shedding the layers of pain that sent her running.
The narrator continues to run, ending up on a full tour bus. “It was you all along. … You were the missing person we were looking for.” But maybe she doesn’t want to be found? As she runs, she gets closer to who she wants to be. Don’t we all at times want to run away and become someone new?