What if Alfred Hitchcock had sat out behind his Holmby Hills bungalow, smoking clove cigarettes and writing chick-lit novels?
The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida. Ecco Press, 224 pages, $26.
By Tim Barry
“….we are invited but not forced to look for an abstract and general significance behind the concrete and particular spectacle that enchants our eyes….” — from Erwin Panofsky’s Meaning In The Visual Arts
Maybe you’re one of these people who snap on to everything, consume the meme of the minute and keep powering on to the next one. A friend mentions something that’s trending and without blinking you go “I know, it has like seventy-million hits.”
That guy’s not me. Glacial in my uptake, acres away from what’s gaining ground, I take the longer view; I wait awhile until something comes around to find me. Test-of-time is my proving ground, and a lifetime subscription to the notion that ‘everything/all-the-time’ is no way to pursue a cultural life.
It was 2014 before I ever realized people were saying “I got this.”
So it’s doubly gratifying, then, when a writer like Vendela Vida finds her way into my virtual in-box. Because when you find a writer, when you happen upon books, that feel like personal discoveries, that seem bespoke to your own quirky predilections, it resonates with a pulsing, spreading warmth.
Does some of that My-Personal-New-Hero thing dissolve into vapor when you discover that she’s pretty much an It Girl; publisher of The Believer, blurbed by the likes of Lena Dunham, Michael Cunningham, and Rachel Kushner; co-screenwriter of a Sam Mendes movie, from 2009…. and oh, by the way, written with her husband, Dave Freaking Eggers?!? And did I mention that the novel that floored me, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, is her fourth?
As I said, sometimes things take me a while.
At first I was reluctant to read this book. The blurb on the front by Rachel Kushner threw me off, (as her Telex From Cuba strikes me as just this side of too clever, and her book The Flamethrowers is still gathering moss on my night-table). And the Lena Dunham blurb…well, okay, Girls has its merits, but in the TV pantheon I wouldn’t trade it for any random episode of Seinfeld, Mary Tyler Moore, or even The Big Bang Theory for that matter. Doesn’t a Lena Dunham blurb scream “Hey, twenty-somethings, here’s a book you might actually read…try it, and it’s barely 200 pages!”
But from the beguiling open sentences of Diver, a loopy interior monologue that reveals by degrees a woman’s sexual fantasies while she’s on a trans-Atlantic flight, I was a goner.
What’s to stop you from having a conversation with this man, possibly even ordering two vodka tonics with the little lemon wedges that the flight attendant will place into your plastic cups with little silver tongs. He has two newspapers on his lap, one in Arabic, and the other in English. If you get along well enough, you could enjoy a meal together once you get to Casablanca. You’ll go to dinner and you’ll sit on plush, embroidered pillows and eat couscous with your hands. Afterwards, you’ll pass by the strange geometry of an unknown skyline as you make your way back to one of your hotels. Isn’t that what people do when they’re alone and abroad?
A woman alone and abroad; the simplest of premises, and the launching point for a book that delights yet confounds, and that you will likely read in one longish sitting. Other critics have cited Bunuel and Paul Bowles in relation to this novel; I put it this way–what if Alfred Hitchcock had sat out behind his Holmby Hills bungalow, smoking clove cigarettes and writing chick-lit novels?
There’s delight and then there’s delight. Diver not only delivers joy page after hilarious page, but has the heft and timbre of a first-rate movie script written in prose. I don’t remember seeing the Sam Mendes’ directed Away We Go, which Vida co-penned with her husband Eggers; were I a Netflix communicant I’d certainly be adding it to my queue. But suffice it that Vida has all the tools of a writer of cinematic fiction; with a few deft strokes–the style borders on minimalist–she sketches scenes and situations that the mind’s eye can’t help but bring to vivid life.
Whether sitting in the back of a taxi in a fly-blown Moroccan city, where the choke of petrol fumes hits you square in the throat, or perhaps sharing drinks in a VIP lounge with a sex-goddess actress who just happens to cross our protagonist’s path–we’re in. We’re not watching, we’re there.
The plotline is a quasi-surreal trifle. She no doubt had fun constructing it. The creeping sense of dread is consistently leavened with her breezy outtakes; gravitas is lacking, but the book is so much the better disposing with it. Still, she examines the intricacies of dislocation, the twists and turns of identity, once mistaken, then lost, then found…then changed. Then changed back. Or maybe not.
It’s the familiar archetype of The Stranger, and indeed the specter of Albert Camus flits in and out of scenes. I invoke Panofsky in my epigraph to call attention to Vida’s fictive strategy; we can enjoy the narrative simply for the story, or we can intuit cultural critique at every turn–either way the books’s a blast.
A thumbnail of the plot: what would happen if you had your wallet stolen, with all your ID and money, in a dangerous and mysterious land afar? Could there be an upside to this? Might it even lead to adventure, to romance, to self-discovery? What if Eat, Pray, Love was written under the influence of peyote buttons?
So taken with Diver, I hastened to read another Vida, and am pleased to report that she’s no one-off. 2007’s Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name finds us in territory not dissimilar to that of Diver, an American woman on a sort of a quest, this time in the frozen clime of Lapland. And reader, she nails it. Place, milieu, the particularity of character, all here. It’s a fast-paced story that’s not a mystery per se but weaves mysterious strands in the telling.
Vendela Vida, I only hope you leave off the ‘Woman On The Edge of a Nervous Breakdown’ vibe for a while; perhaps write in an entirely different key. With your talent, and your sheer sense of quirk, we will follow.
Tim Barry studied English literature at Framingham State College and art history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. He has written for Take-It Magazine, The New Musical Express, The Noise, and The Boston Globe. He owns Tim’s Used Books, Hyannis, and Provincetown, and TB Projects, a contemporary art space, in Provincetown.