In Falling through Space, Ellen Gilchrist opines that nobody should attempt writing prose before aged 40. This serves as a neat appendage to Flannery O’Conner’s famous remark that anybody who survives past age 16 has a lifetime’s worth of writing to mine.
For years I threw my lot in with Gilchrist—O’Conner was right, of course, but few have the maturity or range to write well before the wisdom of middle age settles in, with its attendant scratches, dings, shatterings, recoveries. Now, past 40 myself, I have reason to reconsider. There are simply good writers and bad writers. Their source material may never change, but the way they mine it, if they are talented, will deepen with time.
All of this to say that Deborah Willis doesn’t need to wait until she’s 40. She’s only 28. Her source material is eponymous: Vanishing. Each story bears the mark of either a departed loved one or the protagonist, often stuck in rural Canada and longing for escape. Most of the protagonists are people in their 20s recalling childhood events. Set in Canadian villages like Nanaimo, Port Hardy, and Victoria, Willis’s work will inevitably invite comparisons to Alice Munro. For once the analogy is apt, for Willis is reminiscent of Munro in her relentless examination of humanity in the small details, the places where dailiness intersects with seemingly small events, creating landslides.
In “Vanishing”, the opening story, the daughter of famous Jewish playwright recounts his sudden disappearance through a series of vignettes, moving the reader between past and present. With deftly allusive sentences, Willis gradually reveals why the man abruptly left his wife and daughter, his life as an observant Jew, and his writing, never to return.
Mysterious young women are often the vanishers. In “Weather”, Edith, smoking with one hand and grasping her inhaler in the other, appears just long enough to upend a father/daughter relationship. In “This Other Us”, Karen commands helpless adoration from her roommate and her lover, even as she casually comes and goes. Simone, of “And the Living is Easy”, thoughtlessly destroys a family.
There are numerous dead women as well, mostly wives, a few mothers. Some of these mothers, like Katherine, of “The Fiancée”, are deeply disappointed in life and take pains to convey this to their daughters. Jilly, in “Romance Languages” is one such child. Her single mother works as a hairdresser, a fortune teller, a waitress, anything to fill the paper envelopes marked “food”, “cigarettes”, and “Jilly”. Jilly will grow into Gillian, acquire four languages, and move to Europe, never completely escaping her embittered mother.
Men have sexual power but are otherwise weak, victims of these women and their destructive capacities. The narrator of “Rely” is a widower paralyzed by his daughter’s drug addiction. Karen’s lover Lawrence, of “This Other Us”, is bereft when she departs with another man, mutely, gratefully forgiving when she returns. Alex, in “And the Living is Easy”, reflects he doesn’t know Simone, his wife, at all.
Willis has a gift for creating the miniature worlds short stories demand. The characters are flawed, pained, believable in their kindnesses and shortcomings. They live in apartments with cracked linoleum flooring, shared spaces with dirty kitchens, trailers. They are hairdressers, work at cosmetic counters and video shops.They floss their teeth, they clip on earrings. Money is often tight, unconditional love even tighter.
Interestingly, though most of the stories are partly set in the present, they lack technological accoutrements: nobody uses a cell phone, texts, or fiddles with a laptop. This emphasis on character is enormously refreshing. After all, how you maintain your aquarium after your wife’s death says a lot more about you that what sort of computer you use.
It’s a cliché to say Willis is a fine young talent to watch, yet it’s true. The real deal is often buried these days beneath so much garbage that locating true talent increasingly feels a matter of luck. In this case, then, a book I chose entirely at random to review was just that: great good luck.
Now I pass this luck on to you, lovers of literature and short fiction. Go to an independent bookstore and buy Vanishing. If they don’t carry it, ask them to order it for you. They will. Then read it, feel fortunate, and share the book with a friend.