Book Review: How We Disappear by Tara Lynn Masih

The mapmaker’s hand is always visible. The sketch of the person outlined in the drawings, marking the mapmaker’s own journey, to connect the reader to the land the way the mapmaker saw it. “Come with me,” the map whispers. How We Disappear, is a book composed of short stories and a novella written by Tara Lynn Masih. Published by Press 53 in September 2022, this is Masih’s third book, and it could just as well be described as a sketched map. Maps don’t need words for meaning to shine through. All you need is a key. Masih is working with the same type of silences that maps do.

The sensuality of the writing and its focus on the natural environment is perhaps the strongest quality in this book. Masih holds the same space for the hills, grasses, and snow, as for the myriad characters. She provides a sense of the world in this way, as each story moves to another region and climate. It is nearly frustrating how lightly the language treads at times, spreading over metaphor or colorful language. The story falls into the land, many times in the fashion that Agatha describes a tree, “branches drooping and encircling, dripping with lore and myth.” Her landscapes do vary greatly, from South America, to the American Midwest, Europe, and the Russian taiga. Masih’s variety of locations brings to the collection the spirit of a traveler who snaps a picture, holding a place for that region in the wholeness of the book.

Masih was inspired by traditional folktales. Throughout the book are references to fairy stories, oral tradition, and references to magical practice. “Notes to THE WORLD” and “Billy Said this Really Happened to Lucy”, though highly different in structure, are two of the most powerful stories in the book. “Lucy” and “THE WORLD” engage in a storytelling approach of layered voices, voices that are being echoed or retold. In the case of “Notes to THE WORLD” a mysterious person has written letters as an invitation into another world, while the implication in “Lucy” is that the story has been passed through several people already, the language is smooth as a fairy tale, the magic mundane, yet certain. In both stories the characters are met by mystical elements. In “THE WORLD” the man is greeted by a house, perhaps the very same Baba Yaga house of that region, the folkloric witch’s house that reveals itself at will. In “Lucy” the character is met by a snake who claims to be her late mother, slithering out of the “humid tidal marsh.”

The practice of unveiling a lost way of communication is drawn out through the book through fortune tellers, and ghosts, through off-the-grid lifestyles and echoes in the trees. Because while the concept of the map reverberates, Masih is intentional about releasing it from institutional violences of maps and exploitative descriptions of lands and people. She creates characters of a vast array of backgrounds and makes a point of, if only showing, the existence of state and cultural violences against minority groups, an essential practice for a writer in America. The stories are markers, suggestions, without specific teachings, but imbued with wisdom. The reader is told that the way might lie in some other forms of knowledge the historically oppressive culture supplies. That there might be magic in the world, whatever that means. Masih appears avid in the belief that the mystic lives, without a doubt, in the natural environment.

Once, in a writing workshop I attended, we were prompted to close our eyes and imagine opening a door. We were asked to imagine the door in detail; feel in our bodies how the door responded as we opened it. Perhaps the most difficult thing to grapple with in Masih’s collection, is unfulfilled expectancy. Masih writes almost all of the stories in the precarious present tense, where the past and the future rupture the moment, propelling the narrative forward with little for perspective. The reader is consistently left with a door ajar, footsteps leading away as described at the end of “Those Who Have Gone,” where a character follows a series of footsteps while “…whistling so that [Blaze] would hear her approaching.” Over and over again characters leave the page. They disappear. In the writing workshop we wrote freely about our visions of the door, and when we were finished the instructors told us that this was a way to understand how one felt about death. How hard the door was to open, how it looked, all summarized in this encounter with a threshold. Story after story the reader is left either not knowing what the character will choose, or watching them walk away toward an answer that has not entirely been given. It can feel quite isolating to be left this way.

Fairy tales don’t have to tell you how they’ll end. We know: happily ever after with a tortured or dead step mother. The story lies in how the character gets to that point. The happily ever after is the completion of a cycle. The character has met the dragons and they have won. How We Disappear does not have said dragons. The heat of the battle is softened. Characters grasp for answers, they struggle, but not magnificently, to eventually eviscerate into the land as if they were never there at all. And all the reader has are these small words, this vague map to where the character has gone.

The power of the book does not live in narrative as much as the exit. Utopia, of course, translates from the Greek to no place. Masih seems to have learned all the magic she could. She administers the precious fuel of love because it is within the love of these characters that the transformations take place. And then they leave, they go to someplace impossible and utterly beyond words. I feign to call that place utopia, because the longer I sit with the term the less I feel it should be named, but enacted. And so each character, one by one, acts instead of speaks. Each character makes a decision and then, one step at a time, continues into the sun, into the clouds, into the rushing grasses, leaving the reader with nothing but the story as a key.

Publisher: 53 Press

Publication Date: September 13th, 2022

by Irene Lee