On The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty

PrintBy Parul Sehgal, The New York Times, June 16, 2015

VENDELA VIDA’S HEROINES have a particular talent for suffering. When their marriages cool or ancient family secrets worm into the light, these women take their troubles on holiday. They prefer to do their grieving somewhere picturesque: the Philippines (“And Now You Can Go,” 2003), Finland (“Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name,” 2007), Turkey (“The Lovers,” 2010). Ms. Vida has become known for these travel/trauma narratives, wry, amiable novels prone to some clunkiness; the gears always grind a bit loudly. Nothing in them anticipates the smooth engineering of “The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty,” her fourth and finest book, a taut, suspenseful story that ticks along with marvelous efficiency, like a little bomb.

There’s a catch, though. Ms. Vida has opted for the second person, hoping, it seems, that its intimacy might invite the reader to plunge more deeply into the story, that it might complement her investigations into identity. As is often the case, however, it produces the opposite effect, so naked are its designs on the reader, so unguent its overfamiliarity. There’s a temptation to set the book aside immediately, preferably with tongs. Resist the urge. With its echoes of Hitchcock and Highsmith, this novel is full of darting pleasures.

Chief of which is our nameless narrator: a shifty American, whose terrible decisions keep the story moving at a clip. She arrives in Casablanca and is promptly robbed. The police notify her that her bag has been recovered — only to present her with another woman’s possessions. She claims them as her own. And it begins: Fearing she will be found out, she takes another name. And then another. She will become Sabine, Megan, Reeves, Jane and Aretha. She will chop off her hair one minute, and wear a wig the next. She will shuck selves as soon as she can assume them.

The real woman beneath this frantic dissembling remains agreeably hazy. When we first meet her, we know only that she has suffered and that she is a liar. We learn later that she is getting a divorce, and that, on the plane to Casablanca, she saw someone she feared.

We also learn that she’s had practice disappearing. For much of her life she’s been trying to escape her own face, badly pitted by acne scars. “There’s a reason why you finally arrived at diving as your competitive sport,” Ms. Vida writes of the narrator’s high school years. “With diving your face was virtually unseen. It was all about the shape your body made in the distance as you dropped from a high board and disappeared deep into the water. By the time you came up for air, the judges had determined their score. It had nothing to do with your face.”

This squirrelly self-loathing (and the compulsive adoption of other identities) recalls Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s gentleman sociopath. But where Ripley is impelled by strong appetites, our narrator seems without any motivation whatsoever. And where Ripley, when cornered, can parry, prevaricate, murder, our narrator merely blunders and misplaces important documents. She forgets her fake name and loses her wig. She gets hungry. She wants an omelet. She needs a nap.

Her ineptness gives this book its funny, tender soul; it anchors the slightly wispy plot — and distinguishes it from the raft of other books in which clever, competent women flee disintegrating marriages for distant lands, like Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” or Catherine Lacey’s “Nobody Here Is Ever Missing.” There’s no place in this sorority for our narrator, with her bad luck and bad skin and inability to hold her liquor.

The novel unspools swiftly; only later do we realize what an elaborate web Ms. Vida has spun, full of intricate patterns of doubling and coincidence. Every plot point, every object seems to return — a bright white running shoe, a crying child, a pair of sisters, the orange and blue plumage of a tropical bird — everything assumes significance. It’s the economy of imagery one finds in dreams.

Still, Ms. Vida evinces some old weaknesses: an attraction to creaky metaphors and too-obvious symbolism. And she’s not quite sure what to do with the setting. She salts her story with references to Paul Bowles and Michelangelo Antonioni’s film “The Passenger,” as if to place it in a tradition of Americans gone abroad and gone rogue, to conjure some ambient menace. But the menace stays just that, ambient; her Morocco feels tinny and false, all potted descriptions of heat and dust. Its residents fare little better: The author seems to take inexhaustible pleasure in how Moroccans misunderstand or mispronounce English words, a running gag that seems beneath her.

But she sidesteps other major pitfalls. “The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty” doesn’t offer the same well-chewed conclusion that so many novels in the genre do: “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another,” as Hemingway wrote in “The Sun Also Rises.” It posits more interesting questions. It wants to know what remains when you’re stripped of a name and possessions, your family and country. It wants to know where the self resides. It captures an anarchic, contradictory strain of the spirit: We may brayingly announce ourselves to the world and crave its notice, but we desire freedom from the self too, the freedom to be someone else or perhaps to be no one at all. We accumulate, but we also desire to master, as the narrator does, the art of losing, to learn to drift in the knowledge that, in Bowles’s words, “Eventually everything would happen.”

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