The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty eventually shifts from being a simple novel about identity to becoming a study in the theme itself.
A novel written in the second-person is a rare thing. It’s rare because it almost never works. That’s not a subjective claim, it’s an objective fact. Publishers put out the best or most potentially profitable works they get their hands on. Aside from a Choose Your Own Adventure, second-person narratives are either too distracting to sink money into or just plain bad. The ones that make it to press have to be special. They have to prove that this particular point of view is essential to the story. If it’s not, you won’t see it in a bookstore. If you need proof, go to your favorite shop, start in the A’s, pick up and leaf through each title, then count how many are written this way. By the Z’s I’d imagine you’d find, maybe, five. Maybe. That’s generous. Regardless, Vendela Vida’s new novel The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty proves that in this particular instance, second-person doesn’t just fit the story, it’s an integral part of the overall reading experience.
Vida’s comically absurd plot features the theft of the narrator’s identification on a seemingly spur of the moment trip to Casablanca, Morocco. She is stripped of her name and is mistakenly given another woman’s backpack by the police. Her face and coincidental likeness to a Famous American Actress draw her into taking a job as a body-double for said actress on a film set. While the plot point of the narrator being forced to be someone else is enough to satisfy the restraints of the narrative voice at first, it wears a bit thin as the fumbling coincidences pile up and begin to compromise the integrity of the work.
About a quarter of the way in, reading on is a tough choice to make. It’s the right one, however, because The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty eventually shifts from being a simple novel about identity to becoming a study in the theme itself. A person’s name is so stitched within the fabric of their sense of self that being left with only a face is both terrifying and exhilarating. The second-person point of view locks the reader into the narrator’s headspace, and creates the illusion of You. Vida asks her readers to buy into this concept and consider what it would take to jettison everything you are in order to better understand the narrator’s willingness to do such a thing. The novel succeeds at this purpose by seeding the often funny, but often tedious reading experience with the narrator’s previous life.
In turn, it’s revealed the narrator acted as a surrogate mother and carried her sister and brother-in-law’s baby. After the birth she has was forced to deal with her sister’s refusal to allow her connect with the child. And finally she is told her own husband and her sister had an affair with one another during the pregnancy and were planning on raising the child together. The titles of mother, sister and wife were ripped from her in much the same way her own name is once she’s arrived in Morocco. The jump to her embracing the idea of becoming another person entirely is ridiculous at first, but becomes a tragic key to the novel itself through these slow-burn revelations. As a result, the narrative voice becomes a justified and viable tactic in telling a story about a character searching for an excuse to quit her life.
While arguments could be made that first or third-person points of view could have accomplished the same goals, it seems this novel was meant to create the experience of being untethered from identity in a more literal way. The primary narrative is a rather silly confluence of coincidence, and more traditional methods may have brought the story’s absurdity to the forefront. The novel’s success relies on the second-person, relies on the melding of the reader and the narrator’s identities. Keeping that mind-meld from happening by changing the narrative voice would have de-clawed the tragic elements by forcing them to compete against the plot without one major element: The reader’s involvement.
Although short, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty can be a slog at points. Between the random occurrences that border on convenience and the narration that borders on gimmick early on, this little book’s tedium can induce the need to step away from it for a time. There is a payoff, though, in unpacking the nuances and allowing the reading experience to become more than just reading. It may not be the most riveting book you’ll read this year, but it’s unique, oddly satisfying and certainly worthy of discussion.