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FICTION

The Industry of Hope and Grief

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Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, November 23, 2008

SONGS FOR THE MISSING

By Stewart O'Nan

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Viking. 287 pp. $25.95

Stewart O'Nan is a daredevil minimalist, an ardent student of the things people do in between the exciting things other authors write about. In his most recent novel, Last Night of the Lobster, he described the final 10 hours of a Red Lobster restaurant in a Connecticut shopping mall. A fire? A gunman? Legionnaire's disease? No, just budget cuts handed down from the main office. The cooks, waitresses and manager all know what's coming, and so do we. It's a story practically allergic to suspense, but the sensitivity of O'Nan's voice makes it strangely compelling.

Now, 12 months later, his new novel, Songs for the Missing, seems like a sellout. The first chapter sets up a classic thriller premise, strewn with ominous clues: A pretty 18-year-old girl named Kim Larsen leaves her friends at the beach and drives to her part-time job at a gas station. She never arrives. That night her parents notice she hasn't come home. They call her classmates. They call the hospital. They call the police.

We know how this should play out: the accrual of alarming details, mixed with a few false leads; growing suspicion that the devoted father/mother/sister/dog is hiding something; a horrific vision of the crime from the victim's or the murderer's point of view; and finally a shocking revelation. But O'Nan ignores all these conventions in favor of an approach so mundane you can't believe it works, the thriller equivalent of watching blood dry. He's a connoisseur of waiting, and it's his discipline, his refusal to deviate even for a single sentence from the uneventful, dull terror of losing a child, that makes Songs of the Missing so troubling.

Kim's disappearance is at the heart of this novel, but its real concern is with her family members. They have no way of knowing if they're dealing with a simple misunderstanding, an act of teenage rebellion or a capital crime. Even starting the search in earnest seems to Kim's parents like a horrible admission of disaster, but when the initial round of phone calls yields nothing, her father, Ed, feels impelled to do something, get in his car and find her. "They would all laugh at him later, he imagined, Dad freaking out, driving around like a maniac. That was fine with him, as long as she was all right. He didn't expect to see anything." O'Nan follows the trajectory of Ed's panicked thoughts with quiet sympathy: "He'd felt helpless at times in his life, over money troubles most recently, or, more often, the unhappiness of a loved one. This was different. His usually reliable talents of hustle and attention to detail were worthless against the unknown, and he was frightened."

Kim's mother, Fran, is equally afraid, but she reacts differently. As a nurse, "she honored calmness above all, trusting efficiency over emotion." Most of the novel focuses on the mechanics of their search, which Fran pursues with unwavering self-control, an astute study in the way men and women respond to crisis. "The feeling of uselessness nagged" at Ed, but Fran throws herself into these exhausting routines, if only to forestall a descent into madness. "There was a logical order to their panic," Fran thinks. "Every failure led to the next step."

Here once again, O'Nan proves himself the patron saint of labor. These frantic parents have so much to do besides worry: assembling lists of names to contact; canvassing the town with posters; organizing hundreds of volunteers for grid-by-grid searches; staging a "Kare-a-Van for Kim"; ordering buttons, T-shirts and balloons; and trolling through thousands of leads that pour in from witnesses, cranks, psychics and well-wishers. And there are Web sites to monitor and daily blog entries to post -- a whole industry of grieving parents pedaling scraps of hope to each other around the country.

More depressing is O'Nan's clear-eyed portrayal of the media and their double-edged role in these tragedies. "The networks were hungry for missing girl stories," he writes. Fran realizes early that her daughter's disappearance needs to be marketed to get what she wants: maximum exposure as quickly as possible. Even while terrified by thoughts of what might have happened, she must carefully choose the right clothing ("A white blouse would turn into a blob of light" on TV) and train herself to deliver an appropriate appeal. "You don't want to come off as hysterical," a friend advises. "You don't want to be too cool either. . . . It's like advertising." Kim's sister is pushed into the glare of publicity, too: "You're like a celebrity," a well-meaning classmate tells her. Stripped of drama, here is the whole tedious, humiliating, heart-rending work of searching for a loved one.

What holds our attention through all this is O'Nan's careful focus on the minds of shaken family members trapped in a task that consumes their lives and their livelihood. "It was how they told time," O'Nan writes. "They'd picked up the awkward yardstick used by new parents. . . . They counted backwards, snagged on that last day." Forced to go through the motions of hope long after real hope has drained away, they eventually reach that unspeakable place of just wishing it were all over. Ed "no longer looked forward to anything," O'Nan writes. "Pretending to be interested took a constant effort. When he was by himself, he went slack." In scene after scene, these spare descriptions will make you catch your breath. Some are just frozen moments: Fran sitting in her daughter's car in the garage, "both hands on the wheel, as if she was actually going somewhere." Others are masterfully designed sequences: Fran shopping all day for Christmas presents, determined to get her missing daughter just the right thing.

In the end, Kim's family receives neither the resolution they hoped for nor the one they feared. The world that O'Nan captures thwarts our expectations for cathartic tragedy or gleeful celebration, which makes the story even more devastating. This isn't the nightmare of losing your daughter; this is the numbing reality of it. ยท

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at charlesr@washpost.com.


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