Vanishing Acts: Emily St. John Mandel’s ‘The Lola Quartet’

“I wish to remain vanishing.”

— Lilia, Last Night In Montreal

Emily St. John Mandel’s third novel, The Lola Quartet, picks up the threads of her previous two works, Last Night In Montreal and The Singer’s Gun. Mandel is a writer obessesed with young women on the margins of society, young women who leave indifferent parents to slip anonymously across the country on buses, their hair dyed, their names changed. These young women land briefly in small towns, where they live in cheap motels, picking up work as waitressses or dishwashers, often on the night shift. All seek the silent distance of night, when human interaction is limited.

Mandel’s characters divide into three categories: the young fleeing women, the distraught lovers they leave behind, who inevitably search for them, and the individuals—family members, friends, parents, children — caught up in situations created by the women, situations beyond their control. All three books involve crime, drug use, particularly pills, and the type of law officers who carry guns but rarely badges.

The Lola Quartet, who take their name from the German film Run Lola Run, are four teenagers living in Sebastian, Florida, where they attend a magnet arts high school. Gavin Sasaki is a half-Japanese trumpet player who will have brief career as a journalist. Sasha, the drummer, is already involved in the gambling that will wreck her life. Jack, a multinstrumentalist, is headed for music school. Daniel, the bassist, is the only African-American in the group and will become a detective specializing in “gaming, prostitution, prescription fraud, narcotics.”

Sasha’s half-sister, Anna, is the fleeing woman of this work. Anna comes from a troubled home, growing into a troubled girl who lands in Sebastian High School for the Performing Arts after running away from home yet again. Despite her penchant for fighting and fleeing her abusive household, she is a popular girl, charismatic and pretty, with a love for music. She wants to become the next Brian Eno.

Anna begins dating Gavin, whose fondess for all things ’50s noir is a source of amusement to others. Less amusing is his inability to tolerate Florida’s crushing heat: he is highly suseptible to sunstroke. Like Anna and Sasha, Gavin’s family circumstances are less than ideal. His parents are indifferent to his existence. His mother is alcoholic, his father always away on “business trips”. Only Gavin’s older sister Eileen, known as Eilo, looks after him. The book’s sole misstep is Gavin’s mixed race, mentioned only briefly but never explained.

The book shifts around in time and point of view, a whodunit that winds itself to a high pitch, tossing the characters around like the hurricanes regularly hitting their home state. Anna is the first to tumble. At 16 years old, she becomes pregnant by Gavin. As the Lola Quartet plays their final concert, Anna flies a paper airplane that lands at Gavin’s feet. Uncomprehending, he reads “I’m sorry.” But it’s already too late.

Anna flees to Utah, where she steals $121,000 from the wrong person, sending her into a run for her life that mimicks the Lola Quartet’s namesake. By then she has an infant daughter, Chloe, to protect.

Her pretty face attracts help from willing men, which she accepts. Daniel becomes involved, even as his life unwinds, as does musician Liam Deval, a stupendously talented guitarist who meets Anna when she appears at Jack’s college dorm, seeking a shower and a night’s sleep. Liam is Jack’s roommate. He quickly joins the ranks of smitten men willing to sacrifice their safety and well-being for this chameleon with a baby.

Gavin, meanwhile, is unaware of his girlfriend’s pregnancy. All he knows is that Anna is suddenly unwilling to see him or speak with him. He implores Sasha for help, but is stone walled. Escape is beckoning, in the form of a scholarship to Columbia University. He’s distraught by Anna’s abrupt departure, but the promise of a new life, far from his parents and the crushing heat, is too tempting to resist.

He heads to New York City, where he attends journalism school and achieves his dream, becoming a journalist for the New York Star. He resumes his fedora wearing and acquires a 1973 Yashica camera, and like Last Night in Montreal’s Lilia, takes photographs purely for himself.

His classmates are less successful. Sasha begins Florida State University only to fall into the hell of gambling addiction. Jack attends South Carolina’s Holloway College, where he discovers his talent falls short in some inexplicable way.

The happy hours spent practicing with the Quartet become painful at Holloway. Jack begins skipping classes and taking Vicodin, one of the modern world’s more addictive substances. Daniel moves to Utah, where he works construction and lives with an unsavory fellow named Paul, who has moved from construction to the more lucrative world of meth dealing.

Daniel will return Florida, where two failed marriages, alimony, and child support nearly break him financially. He joins the police force and has a narrow, solitary existence, occasionally enlivened by his children.

Even Eilo, a successful realtor, has her troubles. Her marriage has failed. She earns a great deal of money, but it’s entirely from foreclosures, which are rampant in Florida’s suburbs. When Gavin loses his job at the New York Star, Eilo rescues him, paying for his return flight home, where she sets him up has her assistant.

It’s Eilo who discovers Chloe when she photographs a foreclosed home and encounters a child whose familial resemblance is unmistakable. She snaps a photograph of Chloe, then shows Gavin, who musters his investigative reporting skills to find his high school girlfriend and their daughter.

Mandel casts her net over these people, drawing them closer and closer, until their intertwined lives meet, touch, and permanently impact one another’s. As the plot moves toward its climax, The Lola Quartet becomes increasingly difficult to put down; when I reviewed The Singer’s Gun for PopMatters in 2010, I cautioned readers to be careful while reading the book on public transit, lest they get so caught up in the book that they miss their stops. The same caution holds here, as I read most of The Lola Quartet on Bay Area Rapid Transit and nearly missed my stop twice.

At this juncture, three books into what I hope is a long, productive writing career, Mandel could be accused of writing the same book repeatedly. Her talents are such that even so, her work remain completely engrossing. In Annie Dillard’s classic The Writing Life, she quotes the late sculptor Anne Truitt, who was also a fine writer: “The most demading part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s most intimate sensitivity.”

It may be erroneous to suggest that running, hiding, and unhappiness constitute the nerve of Emily St. John Mandel’s most intimate sensitivity, but these topics clearly have a deep hold on her work. While none of her three fine novels offer brighly chipper endings, The Lola Quartet’s is the saddest yet. A group of childhood friends are now heading into middle age. Life has not worked out well for any of them. For Mandel’s lonely, rootless characters, happiness is the most elusive address.

RATING 7 / 10