By Scott Heim
HarperCollins 293 pp., $14 (paper)
“I think I know what happened when I disappeared.”
With these words, Scott Heim’s third and most recent novel, We Disappear, takes a permanent turn for the cryptic. Part fiction, part memoir, We Disappear chronicles the last weeks of Heim’s mother’s struggle with cancer. His unflinching depictions of “the skin around the nails, the knuckles, even the webs between the fingers” flaking and peeling away recall other memoirs of loss: David Rieff’s recent Swimming In A Sea of Death, to name just one.
Yet Heim the documentarian shares the stage here with Heim the purveyor of Midwestern Gothic. The protagonist of We Disappear, also named Scott, returns to small-town Kansas to find his dying mother surrounded by photographs of missing children, convinced suddenly that she herself had been abducted for a week when she was a girl. Are Donna’s stories of being locked in a strange basement simply the beginning stages of dementia? Or do the conflicting accounts she provides to those around her contain a common kernel of truth?
As a novel that concerns itself with the operations of memory, We Disappear intentionally tarries with these questions of doubt and indeterminacy. In this sense, it is the most complex of Heim’s novels to date. While both Mysterious Skin (1995) and In Awe (1997) featured characters with repressed or deliberately embellished memories of childhood traumas, both novels eventually peeled away these fantasies and systems of metaphor to let their characters reckon with the truth of the past. We Disappear casts doubt on the very possibility of such a reckoning: we come to realize that Scott’s narrative voice may be no more reliable than his mother’s, and in the final paragraphs of the novel “Scott” reminds us that the answers he has pieced together about Donna’s abduction are still matters of guesswork and speculation. Pinning down the past, Heim seems to suggest, is just as difficult as trying to escape it.
from We Disappear, by Scott Heim
Photo: Marcel LaFlamme
Is it fair to call Heim a writer of the rural Great Plains? Yes and no. He was born in Hutchinson, Kansas, but hasn’t lived in the state for almost twenty years, and his characters are not ones to wax sentimental about life on the prairie. In We Disappear, one of them quips that if you add one letter to the name of the town at the center of the novel, Haven, you get the word HAVEN’T. “I guess that sorta sums this place up,” the boy drawls. Yet Heim the writer refuses to reduce towns like Haven and Sterling and Little River to punchlines. He writes with a weary tenderness about the boys who are to bring Donna home for hospice care, the “polite formality” of their khakis and button-down shirts at odds with their tennis shoes and the tins of snuff bulging in their back pockets. Heim also evokes the wintry Kansas landscape with a meditative, almost painterly beauty: “the emptied grain silos; the stripped and broken cornstalks; the circular hay bales swelling like blond loaves of bread from the snow.” In these passages, it is as if he has thrown off the bad-boy posturing of Dennis Cooper for the icy spareness of J.M. Coetzee.
Photo: Arturo Patten
Of course, Scott Heim is no Midwestern Coetzee; he is too fascinated by horror films and shoegaze music and other cultural forms that are anything but highbrow. Still, with We Disappear, Heim has ventured into new territory as a writer and re-established himself as a major voice of the American heartland. The fictional Scott’s sister, Alice, may have raged at her mother for never having the nerve to “get the hell out of these horrible backward towns.” But Heim the writer continues to mine the small Kansas towns of his upbringing for inspiration, and with We Disappear he has created a work of subtle, eerie potency.