Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth

Published by Robert Lunday on

In Hisham Matar’s writing, I saw a rhetoric of missingness punctuated with lyricism. The strength of Matar’s keen lyric sense – the ways he captures small, vivid perceptions that convey a deeper and grander sense of place or situation – works as a tool for exploring missingness by catching and briefly framing aspects of the unknowable. I see in Matar’s works evocations of space as real, as dangerous, as beautiful – but also as refractive of the interior spaces of the mind, as a framework of symbols that allow the artist to sustain his investigations into the trauma and mystery of disappearance.

This pattern, or axis – evocations of the outer world of scale, direction, geographic feature framed by or connected to explorations of inner space; or perspective and affect in the mind and body of a character – is essential world-building. My growing interest is in finding the ways such world-building is a part of missingness, and a part of the ways we use imaginative or creative thought to explore missingness – and to cope with real-world disappearance.

Another author of missingness I’ve recently discovered is Julia Phillips, whose debut novel Disappearing Earth was enthusiastically reviewed when it came out in 2019. The story is set in Russia, on the Kamchatka Peninsula, where Phillips lived during a Fulbright fellowship several years before the novel was published.

The world-building of the novel seems to draw on the mixture of strangeness and familiarity, memory and imagination, observation and construction that are the special gifts of a sojourn in such a distant, different place and culture. At the same time, the situations and the landscape itself fit the vast, isolated spaces of the American West. Disappearing Earth is largely a story about women: their ways of thinking, feeling, doing, connecting and not-connecting in such isolated places.

Julia Phillips’ novel Disappearing Earth

The rhetoric of space is vital to the story in Disappearing Earth. More than narrative or solution to the mystery, more than character development, what matters in the novel is how we accumulate a sense of the correspondences between inner and outer dimensions. One key frame of that connection is provided in the opening chapter, in which two sisters, Alonya and Sophia, are abducted by a man in a black vehicle. We get to know them well in that quick first chapter, because the older sister tells a magical tale of a vanished village to her younger sister. That village, swept away in its entirety by a tsunami wave, is the mythic ground of disappearance: emblem of everything that disappears, quickly or slowly, altogether or incrementally. It’s a kind of fairy story, told in part to soothe the younger sister; told to us, though, to establish the sense of scale we will inhabit through the novel.

Whites on the Kamchatka Peninsula live somewhat apart from the Indigenous residents. We are introduced in each chapter – mainly, a series of stories fit to the months of the year that follows the disappearance – to a series of characters and families, varied relationships, and encounters among strangers who, by the later stages of the novel, each hold pieces of the puzzle.

Through the novel we meet a range of characters inhabiting the peninsula; the news and rumor of the disappearance weaves in and out, like a weak radio signal. We learn as well of an older girl, an Indigenous woman named Lilia, who vanished a few years earlier – and we learn of the unfortunate but too-common reality that a non-white female’s disappearance typically receives less attention than that of white females. Still, Lilia is spoken of by various characters: she left the oppressive special space for greener pastures, or she was murdered – which, or what else, float lightly through occasional musings of others.

These relationships, characters, and situations come together by the long penultimate chapter. One way of living, talking, and imagining one’s way through the day is to speculate on the fate of the missing sisters and the older, longer-missing Lilia. The land has swallowed them (they were thrown in a geyser or drowned in the sea), or it expelled them – they were driven or flown off-land to somewhere else. The sense that a man has taken them (someone driving a shiny, dark car) is not drawn into the story with more malignancy than the land and sky themselves. Though we are offered a name, a suspect, even a house on the periphery of the community (and evidence, perhaps, of one sister’s presence) we never have much portraiture toward the perpetrator of any crime; villainy is hardly the point of this mystery.

Disappearing Earth is not a detective story, though we have detectives (and their mainly ineffectual efforts) as one of several motifs in the work. One of them slightly reflects the larger space, as we see in many ways as Phillips constructs the connection between person and geography: “The detective shifted his feet. Though his glasses and clothes made him look authoritative, his face behind them was smooth, young.” Authority, though, is a faint presence in the work; it’s a feature of the vast landscape, where volcanoes and ocean waves are far more in control.

Many passages in Disappearing Earth draw a spare, chilled poetry out of the women’s emotional lives, in balance with their sensing of the vastness of air, sea, and land. Phillips weaves those perceptions of geography and culture into the inner lives through carefully chosen figures of light, distance, temperature, and perspective. Here is one passage exemplifying this approach:

Golden Olya. She concentrated on that light in the air. Even if Diana came to the apartment to explain things or arrived at school with a written apology from Valentina Nikolaevvna, or if Olya’s mother, home next week, announced she found a new job, well salaried, teaching grammar in the university, so she would never have to leave for long again, of if the kidnapped girls returned, or if the police stopped patrolling, or if Petropavolvsk went back to normal…even if all that happened, Olya wouldn’t tell them how the colors changed here. She would share nothing. They would never find out they missed the most beautiful day of autumn, while Olya, alone, had been in its very center.

How good Olya would feel to keep this secret. How safe it was inside herself.

Through such depictions of inner life and key characters’ perceptions of the outer world, we see the myriad ways people share such fragile connection.
The missingness of this novel is in part, then, a form of perspective: as a motif, it allows us to connect space with time – the span of the year, but also the links between calendar time and mythic time; and also, to connect different inner lives through the shared lyricism the author herself acknowledges in the ways her main characters move through this world.

Magical thinking, or the intuitive sense, or the hope – or, one might call it, the residual effects of hopeful thinking – come out at times in the ways the missing girls’ mother, Marina, imagines their fate. What strikes me is that the construction of the novel’s space, of the ways the geography inhabits the imagination, is a crucial element in this magical thinking; and that it is rendered more authentic, if not more rational, by that spatial context.

The father – Marina’s ex-husband – had years earlier moved far away to Moscow for work; the space/time distances made their shared parenting even more disjointed and awkward than mere absence. Though the scene is mainly about the feeling of guilt, of shared responsibility of the parents, the thrust of it is the matter of uncertainty. “Are they dead?” Marina asks her ex-husband, on the phone, from so far away. “I don’t know,” he says, after some deliberation. “Exactly,” she replies. “I think we would know. I think we would feel it – something different. A more permanent absence.”

There is no direct depiction of space in this scene. We feel it, though, in at least two ways: the author has drawn for us a sense of the thousands of miles between the parents; and we have, this far along in the novel, inhabited the still, cold, gray, smoky, steamy spaces of Kamchatka ourselves; thus, that “more permanent absence” of death in such an environment seems to texture and frame the ambiguous boundaries of the northern peninsula.

I have focused in recent posts on the connections of inner and outer, of mind and landscape; and on matters of scale, or how a certain sort of writing (poetry and prose) utilizes shifts of scale to move forward or order itself. Another aspect of this patterning is the scale of literal and figurative: how language, and our conceptions of self and world, depend on a loose, dynamic back-and-forth between the literal and the figurative, or the symbolic and the actual. (This is a frequently recurring trope in Disequilibria itself).

In Phillips’ novel I see a subtle, nuanced exploration of this continuum that is essential to the work’s closure. Frequently, those linkages of inner and outer are part of the scene or of the evocation of a character’s perceptions, as here:

Olya came home to an apartment that smelled the way it always did when her mother was gone: a little sweet, a little rotten. Maybe Olya didn’t empty the trash enough. She opened the windows in the living room, so a breeze could clean the place while she changed out of her school clothes. Then she lay on her back on the futon. From that angle, she could see nothing but sky.

One way that continuum of real-to-symbolic works in Disappearing Earth is through the further edges of speculation so common in missingness. In such a liminal landscape as Phillips’ depiction of Kamchatka Peninsula, where emptiness, vastness, and the blues of sea and sky frame the visible and invisible, musings on alien abduction can seem as likely as any other fate.

The brother of the older, more long-term missing Lilia imagines such a possibility – or, rather, experiences his own close encounter with nocturnal, purplish lights and the touch of alien beings. They tell him, he confesses later, that they will return for him; instead, he speculates, they came for Lilia.

But it is the way his abduction scene is framed by a depiction of landscape that interests me:

The grasses rustled in the night breeze. The deer, barely a meter tall at the shoulder, hunkered down together to make a low, dark field of fur. The world so quiet that Denis could hear his own breath in his ears. The sweep of stars and satellites above.

I think such writing, particularly as it weaves and recurs through a narrative, as the author builds the world of that narrative, pulls the reader more deeply into the possibilities of connection between the literal and symbolic. The ways our momentary or daily lives are already charged with a tension between the here and the beyond, between the outer and inner worlds we inhabit, are enhanced and celebrated. It empowers the reader – such growing sensitivity to that boundary helps us transcend the weight of the as-is. Yet it is also dangerous; it can cause as much pain as joy.

Nor does Phillips utilize such rhetorical effects for the fantastical alone. We see the continua of inner/outer, literal/symbolic in other, more psychologically natural, passages, as in this description of a character called Nadia:

The cold grabbed her lungs in two fists. Wind off the sea of Okhotsk polished the streets here with dark ice. In only a few years, she had gotten used to Esso [a town between north and south on the peninsula]—its clean puffs of snowflakes, its mounds of spotless snow, its seeming calm. Wooden fences lined garden plots in people’s backyards. Horses had brushed their noses against Mila’s palms when Nadia took her out walking. Palana, facing open water, looked vicious in comparison.

These effects are most significant in the development of the main character in the novel, Marina, mother of the two missing sisters. Frequently, her physiological responses – her anxiety and associated tightness in her chest, her struggle to breathe – is carefully depicted:

The weight dropped hard on her chest. Marina could not breathe. She put her head back, folded her hands in her lap, and focused on shutting off the part of her mind that insisted on leading her toward panic. the path was simple: horror movies, petrified wood, bones. Graves. Murderers.

and a bit later:

One hand came up to press on her sternum. Her heart hurt. If Marina could peel off her left breast, crack back her ribs, and grip that muscular organ to settle it, she would.

The penultimate and longest chapter focuses mainly on an Indigenous ceremony that Marina joins at the urging of Alla, mother of the missing Indigenous woman, Lilia. The reader by this point has sunk into the deep, blank spaces of Kamchatka; the openness, coldness, and diffusion of life, but also the points of sharp fire, have shown themselves – in individuals, in relationships, in the author’s moments of lyricism. Here is a representative passage:

Alla Innokentevna’s words rose above the drumbeat. “We pass from one year to the next. You will be given a branch of juniper and a strip of cloth. The branch represents your past worries, and the cloth is your wish for the future. When you come to the first fire, throw the branch of your worries in, and jump across.” Her voice, amplified, carried no hint of irony. “Hold your wish tight as you go to the next fire. You will be walking between worlds.”

This push to jump, partly from Alla and partly from inside Marina herself, repeats as the scene moves forward. Wishful and hopeful thinking in her mind compete with dread and negation. We listen to her inner voice, but also hear and see the narrator’s and author’s prose and poetry or presentation: “She held her false beliefs in two fists: the juniper, that she could leave suffering behind. The strip of cloth, that her daughters would come back to her.”

Marina thinks of impossibly going back in time, to her own childhood, before loss existed. But as the urging from outside continues – from Alla, from the other native people – she settles into herself: “Without her girls, all she had was this breathlessness. Terrible as it was – and it was, it was – it was all she had left to mother. She jumped.”

That ritual fire is the heart of connection between the literal and the symbolic. The jump across is a choice as much as a push by circumstance or a compulsive act.
So I ask myself, inspired by the novel’s climax and closure: What is the fire in my own life, how will I know when to leap? Have I already?

Location of the Kamchatka Peninsula, setting for the novel

Disappearing Earth does not over-stress its exploration of the boundaries and connections between the realities of the white residents and those of the Even people, the Indigenous residents of the peninsula. We hear of their cultural differences in the novel, and of the tentative efforts at connection; the political realties – class and race imbalances – are present, but mainly as part of the overall environment of distance and disconnection between people – older and younger, educated and less-educated, white and Indigenous, men and women. In a much older novel (and the by-now-old film version), Picnic at Hanging Rock, the story focuses mainly on the whites, and tends to center its mystery on the exotic, mysterious, unwritten mythologies of the Aboriginals who are a marginal presence in the story. The rocks themselves where the girls of Picnic disappear (fully without menace; there is no suggestion of a strange man in a dark vehicle) are essentially a metonym of that primordial mystery. It’s civilization that represents here-and-now-ness. The Indigenous is a haunting elsewhere.

In Picnic, the girls, and we, cross a magical boundary: a stream that the soon-to-disappear girls lithely leap over like sprites in their white virginal dresses. It’s like the collarbone of a hare that frames the fairy-world in Yeats’ early poetry, I suppose: pastoral, lovely, and natural / supernatural.

Phillips’ Disappearing Earth gives us a more up-to-date threshold to leap across, and largely leaves it to the reader to discover what lies on the other side – though her final chapter offers what I read as a temptation to resolution more than a true explanation of the mystery. I’ll leave the details to you, Reader, in case you want to discover it yourself.

1 Comment

michael novak · January 6, 2023 at 9:51 PM

the rot of decay is always present within the well meaning faction of a population center, long before it reaches the outer banks of the indigenous cultures who will bare the brunt of its effects. lovely dissertation Robert. miss y’all….

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