Duncan Fallowell’s 'How To Disappear: A Memoir For Misfits': Book Review
It’s hard to know how to describe this strange, appealing book, which recounts adventures—geographical, intellectual, sexual—undertaken by the English writer Duncan Fallowell over the last thirty years. It calls itself a memoir, and in Britain the book won the PEN/Ackerley Prize for “literary autobiography”—but this is autobiography of a very peculiar kind, invested in explorations of exotic places and unusual lives rather than in confession or personal revelation.
The lives Fallowell explores are bound by two things: a misfit quality and a talent for disappearance. One piece follows the career of an Indian woman who first marries and then is abandoned by an English nobleman; she spends the rest of her life in obscurity, desperately striving to reclaim her place at the high table of fashionable England. In another, Fallowell is asked to write a profile of an unknown artist who has bought an island in the Hebrides; having traveled there for an interview, he waits with the locals for the new landowner, who never arrives.
Not all of Fallowell’s subjects are quite so obscure. “Who was Alastair Graham?” seeks out an early lover and muse of Evelyn Waugh, who fled his fashionable friends to seek refuge in a fishing village on the coast of Wales. And the final, extremely moving essay takes up Princess Diana, “the most legendary personality of the age,” who “made the most astonishing exit.”
But it’s inadequate to talk about these essays as if they were primarily determined by their subjects. Nearly all of these pieces are structured by chance: a casually acquired Indian Yearbook sets Fallowell off on one adventure; a random encounter in a bar sparks another. In the book’s first piece, recounting a trip to the Maltese island Gozo, a vaguely menacing man repeatedly appears until, through a series of digressions and evasions, we find ourselves of a sudden in a narrative of seduction.
What this means is that Fallowell writes as a great traveler travels: governed by accident, open to possibility, free of any agenda save curiosity. He despises the packaged, controlled experience, insisting instead on openness to surprise and risk. “The crucial fact in all adventures is the gift,” he writes. “Something coming at you unannounced, unscheduled, free of charge, impossible to refuse.”
Even in their investigations, then, these pieces are anything but goal-oriented, and their openness to misdirection allows them an exciting expansiveness. "Nobody has come up with a satisfactory explanation which marries human psychology to history,” Fallowell claims, and as they pursue their individual subjects these essays also meditate on the larger forces shaping those lives: the legacy of British colonialism, the “state terror” deployed against gay men in Britain between the wars, the mad culture of celebrity by which Princess Diana was caught.
The effects of history are not always what one might expect: in their grief for Diana, Fallowell writes, “People were impassioned but slowed right down. Which are the two best conditions for sex.” He then recounts the “transcendental, unexpected burst of ‘yes’” that fueled a month of seemingly constant sexual encounters.
For all their intellectual pleasures—Fallowell is ever entertaining and sometimes brilliant, quick with aphorisms that nearly always find their mark—it’s the supremacy of sensuous experience that the book finally proclaims, not just “those divine gifts of pleasure and beauty, anguish and excitement in human life which are sex," but also the pleasures of old hotels, of images glimpsed through the windows of trains, of flowers “floodlit by the moon.” One night in India, he writes, “Taking off my clothes and extending my full length I rolled from the top of the hill all the way down, crushing lilies as I went, wetting my naked body with cool lily juice.”
And so the book is a memoir after all, offering not so much the facts of autobiography as an account of vision and value, a kind of manifesto for an impassioned life lived far from the usual roads. “If you are drawn by something or someone,” Fallowell writes, “you have to give it a try,” which sounds simple enough but often proves so difficult. What’s most moving in these sinuous, surprising essays is the example Fallowell sets as he tries to hold himself to that standard—working to learn, however difficult it is, “how not to be shy of the heart.”
Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award as well as a Lambda Award. This fall he will be an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.