Kari Gislason’s response to The Ottoman Motel by Christopher Currie

Words by Kari Gislason

Published on May 4, 2012

The Art of Vanishing Parents

There is more than one moment in life when parents disappear. Teenagers routinely wish them away. Young adults at university return to find they have been abandoned, their possessions boxed, labelled and stored, their bedrooms turned into guest accommodation sometimes featuring lavender. You call your parents and they’re not home. Your mother doesn’t accept your friend request.

But such vanishings come late in the story. Much earlier, beyond memory, we separate our identities from the very people who have authored us, and in doing so form a narrative of our own. Our parents are gradually recognised as different, and then hastily elided, or rubbed out, or at least smeared at the edges of the pencil lines that have been used to form them. The very appearance of one’s parents as beings in their own right seems to demand a disappearing as well.

I think, in a way, that’s what is happening in your book.

This is an open letter, so I will offer a context that will spoil the novel for anyone who hasn’t read it yet. After arriving in the small town of Reception, Simon’s parents leave him in a hotel room in order to go for an evening drive to the nearby Magpie Lake. He never sees them again. But in the process of looking for them Simon uncovers a drug operation, and at the same time brings to the surface a number of fractures that define relations in the town, many of which have been caused by earlier disappearances of one kind or another.

Simon is not ready for his parents to disappear: he is eleven and so hasn’t yet  learnt to find them quite that mortifying. But, all the same, when they do go he is socialised in a way that I don’t think he’d previously thought possible. Most importantly, he goes from being an observer to becoming a participant – from a child who watches the details in the world around him to one who for the first time is speaking to that world in the fullest sense. After a childhood of dislocations, he begins to join a community that, however broken, is willing to have him, another broken piece. And he joins them in a way that marks the first steps in belonging: he has his own impact.

The premise of your story reminded me of The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness. That work begins with this: ‘A wise man once said that next to losing its mother, there is nothing more healthy for a child than to lose its father.’ In fact, the narrator has lost both, and reflects: ‘I will not say that it was actually my good fortune – that would be putting it too strongly; but I certainly cannot call it a misfortune, at least not so far as I myself was concerned, and that was because I acquired a grandfather and a grandmother instead.’ [1]

When parents vanish other things appear in their place. That is, there is a mysterious gain in this process, one that Laxness captures in a narrative voice that never entirely recognise its own irony.

In the case The Ottoman Motel, the mystery inhabits the somewhat off-key details of the small town that Simon has entered. There are many of these, and the first half of the book collects them as evidence of Simon’s heightened awareness, a prelude to change: a provincial hotel room is ‘lit up in banana yellow’; a country pub smell is like ‘something that had got wet and then dried’; the cars are ‘seemingly rusted onto the road exactly where they were always parked’; there is a ‘frypan haze’ inside the cafe. On the eve of his parent’s disappearance, Simon is observing a community come into being. And without knowing it or wanting it, he is preparing to replace his parents with his own participation in the world. What Simon, and I think probably most of the characters in your book, discover along the way is that the distance between yourself and your parents can only ever be measured with bifocal lenses. You think they are blurring out of view when in fact they are standing very close. They are right in front of you, but they are off in the distance doing their own thing.

Your novel reminds me that the strangeness of that duality is rather like the strangeness of narrative: well-written stories collate a number of viewpoints all at once, and make a gain out of the uncertainty that exists in the ways those viewpoints meet and splinter. I wanted Simon to find his parents – couldn’t you have found some space for them, alive if slightly bruised, in the boot of the stolen car? No matter: Simon has lost them but he has also learnt how to look for them, as we all must at some point learn to do.

[1] Both quotes from Halldór Laxness,The Fish Can Sing, translated by Magnus Magnusson (Harvill Press, 2000).