Sunday, March 10, 2013

Review: The Art of Disappearing by Ivy Pochoda

At last I've finished reading The Art of Disappearing by Ivy Pochoda. For at least 2-3 years, I've been wanting to read this literary fiction debut from the Harvard grad and Brooklynite. The book came out in 2009. It was recommended to me through an online friend or another blogger or in a book forum - I'm not exactly sure now.

I wanted this book to be more romantic than it was, but it's not the book's fault I was expecting more of a love story. Mel Snow, the textiles saleswoman to whom the textiles sing, and the stage magician Toby Warring whose magic is not a trick, are meant to be together for only a finite amount of time and that's just the way it is. One can think of this book as magical realism - it reminded me in this respect of Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry (and probably also The Time Traveler's Wife, although I've seen the movie but not read the book).

On the other hand, it could be taken as an extended metaphor for the fact that the neurological world in which each individual lives is a closed system, and there is no way to let another person inside our own worlds, no matter how much we love them and want to share with them. It's simply the case that magic is Toby's entire world, just as Mel's world is woven through fabrics and her brother Max's world was entirely contained within waters. Their paths cross, and possibly continue to cross infinitely, but they can never truly inhabit one another's worlds. This is a bit of a sad revelation, but the redeeming note is that each world has its own unique beauty.

As in The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, the characters make a trek from the U.S. to Amsterdam. Toward the end, Mel goes to a Saturnalia party thrown by Leo, a friend of several old-time magicians who've formed a sort of society of real magicians who've lost their magic. Leo's Saturnalia tradition is that the party be lit by candles, a bonfire and other natural lights, and that it not end until the lights have all burned out on their own (not blown out) - similar to the Hanukkah tradition of letting the candles all burn out on their own.

Toby appears, and there's some debate about whether he should be adorned with ivy or with holly, for all of the party guests must wear an evergreen to take part in the winter solstice festivities. One of the guests, a Belgian man named Christoph, wants Toby to represent the Holly King, a folkloric figure I brought up in the Imbolc post. (The Holly King rules over half the year, from Winter Solstice to Midsummer Night.) Toby refuses, instead choosing ivy. Ivy, Christoph says, not only represents "wine, ecstasy and bacchanalia," but also, paradoxically, both mortality and resurrection.

Toby has, to some extent, figured out how to move around in time, even if it's only a sort of illusion. Perhaps when Mel married him, she agreed to a never-ending cycle of losing and finding each other. Still, they are ultimately bound to belong to different worlds.

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