Fanciful Lands

Published by Robert Lunday on

Disequilibria has its many chords. This blog series might lead to fruitful projects toward a second work, perhaps also within the scope of missingness. One way I’m thinking toward a follow-up work exploring missingness is to focus in a more sustained way on place and space as theoretical concepts, somewhat in the way of geographers like Yi Fu Tuan, Edward Soja, Doreen Massey, or Timothy Cresswell.

The trope I’ll work with in this post – though it might metamorphose as I keep working with it – is “fanciful lands.”

In a recent novel by Britt Bennett, The Vanishing Half, twin sisters abscond from their Louisiana home as adolescents; soon after, one of the sisters disappears alone, leaving her twin behind. The novel tracks the abandoned sister’s efforts to find her “vanishing half.” The twice-absconded sister, Stella, lives as a white woman; Desiree, the other twin, eventually returns to their hometown with a dark-skinned child from an abusive marriage. The novel’s resolutions come largely through the life-choices of the sister’s daughters, which I find a meaningful way of illustrating the reverberative effects of disappearance.

What interests me with regard to place is a delightful reminiscence of Desiree’s late in the novel. “When I was little,” says Desiree,

“…like four or five, I thought this was just a map of our side of the world. Like there was another side of the world on some different map. My daddy told me that was stupid.” He’d brought her to a public library, and when he spun the globe, she knew that he was right. But she watched Reese trace along the map, a part of her still hoping that her father was mistaken, somehow, that there was still more of the world waiting to be found.

Perhaps that “more of the world” is the spaces where people disappear to – people, things, ideas, or anything we lose and forget, or lose and miss. It’s a space of hope as well as despair, wonder as well as dread. It’s far – the other side of the world – and yet near: just that other side of the thin paper projections we study when we seek our way. Why couldn’t the world we live in have both a recto and a verso, like the worlds of books?

When I was six, we drove south from North Carolina into South Carolina. This is the first memory I have of crossing a state line, though I’d been born in South Carolina. Having seen maps, I’d wondered about the vastness of the world beyond our home, our street, our town. Driving fast on the highway, my stepfather announced the sign welcoming us across the boundary. Barely able to see out the car window, I noted the change in landscape: it did seem the colors shifted suddenly: from North Carolina’s light green to the pinkish hue given on the map to South Carolina. That the map was the territory made sense. It was a simple, analogue world I lived in, though filled with wonder and horror. Those good and bad features were how reality grew increasingly complex – including simple relations such as near and far, outside and inside.

In later posts I will look at the long tradition of fanciful lands in several cultures: the land of Cockaigne, Nirvana, Arcadia, Ultima Thule, Eden, Dis, Phaikaia, Shangri La, El Dorado, Atlantis, and others. The symbolic patterns these different myths suggest offer me ways of thinking about the here and now as itself a mythical place – just the one we happen to presently inhabit, but no less charged with mythic presences of wonder and horror. One notion I am tinkering with is how internalized the different might be – the difference between real and imagined spaces; how much the lostness and missingness of people and things is due to the complicated correspondence between map and territory.

When someone vanishes, when they aren’t where we expect them to be, there is often the sense of menace, magic, the uncanny – some sense that we have missed a layer of the here and now, missed some avenue of escape. Over time, for the long-term missing – across weeks and months, then years, then decades as in the case of my stepfather – that uncanniness, that strangeness, paints one’s overall sense of the world. Place and the objects, signs, and presences that occupy defined spaces become inextricably entangled with our inner spaces – our thoughts, memories, and emotions. I think missing-persons stories, both real-life cases and fictional versions, push us toward particular ways of defining our sense of the missing person’s journeys and destinations.

Certain spare details, fragments of fact, have led us to suspect that Lewis, my stepfather, crash a plane in South America. At some point, in imagining that event and that broadly-defined space, I furthered characterized it as the Amazon: a place I can vividly reconstruct in my mind with colors, textures, sounds, flora, fauna, a history, a dire future. It’s a place with mythic dimensions, already populated by missing persons: the explorer Percy Fawcett, for one, as well as others who searched for him. (More on Fawcett later; and look for brief mentions in Disequilibria). So, the imagined space becomes a presence, an event, in itself: we have no body, no person, but we have (among other imaginative constructions, as we choose) a sense of the missing person as reconstructed posthumously within that living place.

Sometimes such transformations – imagining the missing person in a grave, underwater, imprisoned, living a new life in a far-off paradise – take the place of despair or hope – that is, the alternating choices or compulsions regarding the likelihood of return or at least of verifiable, believable information. I wonder how such thought experiments, if we can upgrade such daydreams thus, connect to a searcher’s ability to cope, move on, sustain the search, or otherwise live with the unknown.

One more illustration: Meg Abbott’s The Song is You is loosely based on the real-life disappearance of movie starlet Jean Spangler in 1949. Abbott’s novel follows a Hollywood publicist who’s looking into Spangler’s fate. He takes the place of the conventional gumshoe. Framing the tale through his mixed, imperfect motivations allows Abbot to complicate the overall portrait of her heroine, giving the reader more to live with within the novel than a solution to a mystery or satisfaction of our want for lurid details that don’t really add up to a life.

It’s a well-told mystery, deftly borrowing from and adapting the hard-boiled style of the genre. In Abbott’s version, Spangler is found/not-found: the publicist, Gil “Hop” Hopkins, journeying through the varied circles of Hollywood purgatory and hell, eventually tracks the missing woman to a small town, Merry Lake, idyllic and detached from history – though it has a bar, the Hot Spot, a little bit of hell to link it to the world  where Hop still lives. When he finds Merry Lake – first as a fanciful post card, then as a real place on the map, small and insignificant – seeing the movie starlet is like seeing the dead returned to life. How could a powerless young woman escape the violence he was sure had consumed her? Reluctantly she tells him, shows him: the scars of her almost-murder, from which she escaped with the help of another woman. Merry Lake is just out of history. It’s a seaside-pastoral, a few hours north of LA: a paradise just a little bit dinged, to give it texture. She sings and serves drinks and food at the Hot Spot: anonymous, scarred, but alive and free.


Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection #63828, Public Domain.

It’s a middle distance: not paradise, and not quite far enough. Jean will disappear further than Merry Lake after the novel’s end. For Hop, perhaps for the reader, finding her is redemptive in whatever way one needs. “Maybe you’re done with it,” Hop tells her, “but it’s not done with you. It’s not done with the rest of us.”

He chooses to stay in the purgatory of LA, rising over the next few years higher in the studio system. Hop’s mind is the true middle distance: the idea of escape, which is valuable only as an idea never acted on: “Merry Lake’s waiting for you.”

Every missing-person case is different, despite the compelling patterns. The long-term missing often fall to one side or the other of a line between voluntary and involuntary disappearance, but many hover right at the boundary. We just don’t know if the person was taken or absconded; if they chose to leave us or were wrenched away. It’s unsettling, like a twitch that never stops, that dominates one’s waking thoughts. I think these thought experiments might offer ways to cope with such unknowns, and with the emotions that consume those of us who can’t stop searching.


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