The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty
Take inventory of what distinguishes you from everyone else and you’ll find a lot, like the obvious; your name, your physical description, and the clothes on your back; and esoterica, like experiences, memories, and the people who populate them. In fact, we seldom consider every aspect of identity, things that lie between the obvious and esoteric. There’s so much about identity we tend to take for granted, and this is what author, Vendela Vida, uses to frame crises for the characters in her novel, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty.
You Can Run, But Can’t Hide
Vida frames her story in the seldom used singular, second-person point-of-view that is, “you.” You are an American flying to Morocco—perhaps fleeing to Morocco—running-away. Your backpack is stolen at the hotel check-in. It had your passport that tethered you to your identity and your identity that tethered you to your past. It had your money in the form of credit cards that all-too-often afford instant gratification, but demand a piece of you at the end of each billing. You’re quick to cancel the cards. Anyone would think you would at this point want to call home, because home is after all a big part of someone’s identity. But that would be too simple, reveal too much too soon, without advancing the plot. This is how Vida starts her novel with you, the protagonist, harried, venturing through Morocco, from one police precinct to another, looking for the thing stolen from you both physically and metaphorically—your backpack—your identity.
The police chief hands you a backpack that looks a little like yours, but is not. This creates a kairotic moment that commits you to one ill-fated choice after another.1 The you that ran-away to Morocco is lost. Now, identity is something you try on as casually as new clothes. Eventually through the arc of narrative you find the self from which you simply cannot hide. It is authentic, it’s you, your identity is not. Identity has become quite malleable and yet odd to think of in those terms.
“You” Must Be Given a Chance
There’s a reason few authors take the risk of experimenting with second-person point-of-view. It places readers in shoes that aren’t likely to fit. That’s where I found myself. I would not have walked the path of Vida’s protagonist or made her choices, but of course this didn’t matter, because the author’s intention was to box me in with this nameless, manufactured identity, as if to prove, “Ahh, see what I did there!” I’m handed an identity along with the protagonist, but she’s making all the decisions, while I scream at her on the pages of the book like a heckler from another dimension.
“With a snap of his wrist, he places the passport on the desk before you, as though he’s a blackjack dealer giving you your last card.
‘I imagine everything will be easier if you have this,’ he says.
You open the front page of the passport and see that while the photo resembles you–the woman has brown straight hair and bright wide-set eyes–it is not your passport. It belongs, you see, to a woman named Sabine Alyse.”
Vida has risked the chance that readers like me might put down the book at this point and think, this “you” broad is wack, both the protagonist and author. Anyone willing to stick with the story though will find it compelling and Vida’s approach cleverly calculated. She leaves no identity reference unchallenged even down to the form in which she writes. That is to say, there are no chapter headings or visual cues to identify completeness or even closure; you travel through narrative as nameless as its protagonist, and scene becomes the only reminder of what you’ve read.
You Ruminate On Existence
Vida gifted this book with a title, voilà a name. Name and identity come as partners in her book, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, and take inspiration from a poem written by the famous thirteenth century poet, Rumi.
The Diver’s Clothes Lying Empty
You are sitting here with us, but you are also out walking
in a field at dawn. You are yourself
the animal we hunt when you come with us on the hunt.
You’re in your body like a plant is solid in the ground,
yet you are wind. You’re the diver’s clothes
lying empty on the beach. You’re the fish.
In the ocean are many bright strands
and many dark strands like veins that are seen
when a wing is lifted up.
Your hidden self is blood in those, those veins
that are lute strings that make ocean music,
not the sad edge of surf, but the sound of no shore.
The poem, in a book of writings by Rumi, is also a prop on a movie set where you’re helping block a scene. You happen to pick it from among the many books on a shelf in front of you. The moment is a doppleganger of sorts, because Rumi’s poem is partially about the illusion of identity and like the diver’s clothes, you are empty. On the set, you’re the place-holder that someone will inhabit—that is, you are filling in for the famous American actress. Irony persists because the actress is playing a part too, she is a doppelganger, she’s art imitating life. Here, Vida plays with the quintessence of Rumi. She honors his formula by feeding us layers of meaning to ponder before getting at what may lie beneath.
This is also apparent in the way Vida reveals the protagonist’s identity as a twin, a sister in a horrific family betrayal. It happens over the course of the entire book through the protagonist’s expository dialog and conversations inspired by all the supporting characters. We discover the protagonist is self-consciousness, a successful athlete and diver that relishes her anonymity, desires to shed her past and start anew. Throughout this journey into self, Vida posits that “identity” is defined by externals: people, places, things. Shed this and the self is free—you’re essence without form.
I put off reading other reviews about this book until I’d written mine. I think this worked, because much of what’s been said about Vida’s book references the aspect of travel, glamor, and mystery, before getting at its existential bent. But then I found Sarah Ditum’s review in the Guardian and it’s the most interesting take on this book as well as being similar to what I’d gathered from reading Vida too. (shout-out: Ditum is on WordPress)
If you can allow yourself to become rapt in the second-person point-of-view, you’ll really enjoy The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty. Remember that authors seldom add characters, descriptions, scene, place, or even POV without honoring the plot—that is to say, look for meaning in what Vida has written—it’s there and will leave you taking notice.
I read a hard-bound copy of the book. This is a must if you’re going for the full experience, the chapterlessness, etc., but Xe Sands, the voice talent for the audio version of this book, does a beautiful job capturing the protagonist’s ponderous tone.
See what others are saying online about the The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty.
Sarah Ditum in the Guardian,
Terry Gross interviews Vendela Vida on NPR’s Fresh Air.
1 I intended to use the word kairos in a secular sense, but then realized like so much about this reading that it could be taken to mean something else. So if you want it to mean divine intervention, that works just as well.
*Featured photo by: Winni Wintermeyer
2 thoughts on “Identity Crisis”
This sounds like a FACSINATING book. I have read short stories using the second person, but never an entire novel. I imagine it would be difficult to adjust to. I had never considered the existential crisis it could bring on either! – when I’ve read it in the past its usually been used for comedic effect. Great review 🙂
LikeLiked by 2 people
Thank you so much for visiting, Lydia–and leaving a message.
Yes, Vida’s book is cleverly written, and when you think of her use of “you” while addressing identity, then it’s genius. If you’re in the Bay Area, she should be having some readings at San Jose State University, during the spring semester. I think her reading/speaking schedule is googlable.
LikeLiked by 1 person