Songs for the Missing, Stewart O’Nan’s 11th novel, opens by introducing Kim Larsen, an ordinary, likable, and happy 18-year-old from a small Ohio town. This is Kim’s last summer before she heads off to college, and when she’s not stuck at her nothing job, goofing off to pass the time, she hangs out with a few close friends, whom she knows she will badly miss come fall. Though she’s nervous about what her future might hold, she is also looking forward to redefining herself as an adult. She hopes that her time in college will transform her into “someone else, a private, independent person, someone not from Kingsville at all.”
Then one afternoon Kim disappears, leaving no word or warning. Since no one who knows her can imagine why she might have left on her own, everyone immediately fears the worst: that there’s been a terrible accident, or that she’s become the victim of a violent crime. They call the police and mobilize the people of Kingsville to look for her, but as days and then weeks pass, Kim remains missing, and hope begins to fade.
It’s a premise that would seem to promise a great deal of drama and suspense, but in fact Songs for the Missing takes a different — and far more realistic — approach, focusing instead on the frustration and tedium involved in a search for a missing person. The process of bringing Kim Larsen home does not involve the breathless pursuit of hot leads or dangerous criminals, but instead the endless drudgery of putting up fliers, making phone calls, organizing fundraisers, wrestling with indifferent bureaucrats, and grimly investigating the contents of each and every storage unit along the interstate.
O’Nan devotes numerous pages to the impatience and restlessness of Kim’s family and friends as they do very little except wait to hear news of any breakthrough in her case. At times it’s difficult for the reader not to share in the characters’ discontent: because O’Nan so fully and conscientiously captures the gnawing boredom and disappointment of months of fruitless searching, the book occasionally becomes static and repetitive.
But for the most part, O’Nan’s devotion to realism pays off, lending his story, characters, and setting a lifelike feel. Much in the same way that his 2005 novel The Good Wife presents a tirelessly accurate reconstruction of the experiences of a convicted murderer’s wife as she deals with the bureaucracies of the courts and prisons, Songs for the Missing similarly captures the procedural details of the hunt for a missing person with an uncompromising interest in getting the facts straight.
O’Nan also takes care to give his teenage characters believable interests and habits: they send text messages and chat online, and in their cars they listen to both contemporary bands and the Clash. And while other writers might have presented Kim’s hometown as generically small and Midwestern, O’Nan gives it highly specific roads, stores, houses, and natural features, and as a result, his Kingsville feels like a real, lived-in place on the page.
What’s most remarkable about Songs for the Missing is the fact that O’Nan’s great interest in cold, factual detail never prevents him from making the emotional lives of his characters the primary focus of his attention. Different characters have different, and equally believable, responses to the ongoing trauma of Kim’s disappearance. A romance grows between Kim’s boyfriend and one of her best female friends, even though both hesitate to become intimate with one another out of fear that doing so would amount to an unforgivable betrayal.
Still, they feel drawn to each other, and near the end of the book Kim’s father articulates why: it’s their shared loss that brings them together, and sets them apart from the other people their age with whom they might otherwise have forged relationships. For Kim’s mother and father, the parental urge to protect their child comes to the fore, and so they busy themselves with organizing search parties, holding fundraisers, and putting up fliers, even though they fully understand that it’s unlikely that anything they’re doing will actually bring about their daughter’s return.
Meanwhile, Kim’s younger sister Lindsay, a socially awkward, emotionally raw teenager, has no ability to bury her sadness in the kind of desperate busywork that occupies her parents. Instead, she’s excruciatingly uncomfortable in the public eye, and becomes the novel’s emotional heart as she struggles with both her personal grief for her sister and her deep discomfort at being forced to participate in her parents’ hopeless and often absurd efforts to bring Kim home.
Songs for the Missing combines an unusual degree of attention to factual detail with a deep-running and thoughtful empathy for its characters. In past books, O’Nan has employed similar strategies with great success. His previous novel, Last Night at the Lobster, delves into the minutia of the operations of a Red Lobster restaurant in order to offer a moving, unsentimental, and non-condescending portrait of a struggling, working-class suburbanite.
His 1999 critical breakthrough, A Prayer for the Dying, treats a 19th century Wisconsin town beset by disease and madness with a similar factual and emotional seriousness. Like all of O’Nan’s best work, Songs for the Missing succeeds by using the precise observation of both exterior and interior detail as a means for exploring the hearts and minds of sympathetic, ordinary characters in times of crisis.