Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Songs for the Missing

Author: Stewart O’Nan

Why Did I Read This Book: Because I loved O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, as well as his book, The Night Country.

Availability: Published by Penguin Books in 2008, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I love Stewart O’Nan’s writing. I admit that no matter what, O’Nan will have a special place in my book-heart because of his book, The Night Country. I read it the first time in October of 2008, during a time when I was completely crazy, made mad from drugs given to me for a misdiagnosed condition. I was hearing voices in my head and the book had a specific message for me that I don’t know if I could explain now that I am sane, relatively speaking. I reread it in October 2009 and it was a completely different book for me yet still so amazing that I suspect that I will read it again and again every October. I probably won’t ever discuss it here because when a book is that special, you don’t really feel the need to discuss it with anyone and you certainly can’t countenance anyone saying, “Well, it was… okay, I guess.” Special books for me need to remain undiscussed even as I recommend everyone read the book and the author.

So with that disclaimer out of the way, it’s clear I am an unabashed fan of O’Nan’s writing. Yet I pride myself on my brutal honesty when I discuss books. So it has to be said that Songs for the Missing didn’t hit my love meter the way O’Nan’s other books have. There are many reasons for this and the one that is clearest for me is that the one character I related to the most went missing. Simple as that. As enjoyable as this book was to read in parts, I did not ever have a deep connection to any of the characters in the book. Despite the fact that I think this is a good-enough book, putting it heads above many other books I have read recently, I wanted to loved it and couldn’t.

Songs for the Missing begins with Kim Larsen as she hangs out with her friends and prepares to leave for college. She goes to the lake with her friends one afternoon and leaves to make her shift at a convenience store and is never seen again. The book deals with how her friends, boyfriend, mother, father and sister deal with her disappearance. The police investigation, what to tell the police and what not to tell them, the pleas to the media, the desperate fight to keep Kim relevant in the news as her case grows colder and colder. I suspect the latter was another reason why I did not love this book as much as I wanted to love it: O’Nan replicates all too well the frustration, lingering desperation and, frankly, boredom that goes along with a loved one going missing. The crushing work, the tiresome waiting, the complete lack of resolution for years are hard to make interesting.

Still, despite the fact that this book at times fell flat with me, O’Nan still does an amazing job of doing what he does best: showing the tangled complexities of human relationships. He does this best with Lindsay, Kim’s younger sister, a girl very different than her athletic, engaging, missing sister. Shy, bookish, awkward, Kim’s disappearance causes Lindsay discomfort above and beyond the obvious. Lindsay is suddenly on display, her every action subject to a scrutiny that makes retreating into the safety of her room a guilt-laden experience.

It was always the problem: without Kim she would be free to be her own person, but she would also be picked on or ignored because that person was weak.

In bed, with the light out, she resolved to be strong tomorrow, as if she could pay her back that way. “If it was you,” her father has said, “do you think Kim would just be sitting in her room?” From now on, she would do whatever she had to, whatever she could. For once Linsday would save her.

You want to throttle her father for saying that to her, for laying a trip like that on her, but he is just as clueless as Lindsay is. All he knows is that his eldest teen daughter is missing and her sister is hiding from everyone, creating a problem. There is nothing he can do, there is nothing Lindsay can so, and the reader knows it in a way that anyone actually experiencing this sort of situation cannot. And that frustration should have made me engage more with this book than I did but it didn’t. This frustration was not a tension one sees in a well plotted mystery but rather the boredom one feels when one is treading water.

The book is filled with awkwardness. A mother engaging experts in keeping a missing child in the media and selecting “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as the song for people to request on the radio, a song her missing daughter would have loathed. A haggard father spending weeks searching in the place where his daughter’s car is found, never sleeping. A family gathering with an elderly grandmother in a nursing home. Friends keeping information to themselves about Kim’s ties to a drug dealer. Lindsay developing a crush on her missing sister’s boyfriend. A family developing a sense of normalcy only to have the rug yanked out from under them. Yet through all this expert telling of the intensity and complexity of human emotion, there was sense of something missing, a golden cord to hold it all together. It seems very on the nose, a book about the missing that is missing something, but there you are.

But there were some definable moments wherein I did not like the content, moments I can put my finger on. O’Nan gets pop culture wrong in this book. I marvel at how he handles blue collar and working class culture but elements of this particular book seemed yanked from a hazy 1970s memory of youth, not a youth of five or even ten years ago. It’s hard to explain but the sense of being in a completely different time is there. The passages of Kim interacting with her friends just did not ring true. Worse, it is hard to tell if the cultural misconceptions that O’Nan puts out there were meant to serve as an example of the chasm between a character’s sense and reality. Take this, for example, when Kim’s mother is telling a police officer yet again about the clothes Kim was wearing when she went missing:

He asked twice about her shirt, a baby blue Old Navy tee she’d bought for herself. Fran remembered saying she could buy a lifetime supply at Wal-Mart for that, and Kim giving her a put-upon look – sensible, out-of-touch Mom.

I have no idea who is wrong here: Fran or O’Nan. Yes, mothers say dumb things like that but Fran seems clear that she thinks an Old Navy t-shirt is quite expensive. It seems as if Fran saw the price tag and seems to think that Kim spent an arm and a leg on a t-shirt at a notoriously cheap place to buy clothes. But nothing from Old Navy is that expensive compared to clothing from WalMart and I walked away from this scene having no idea what it was O’Nan wanted me to know about Fran. I mostly took away that O’Nan is himself unaware of what some things must cost. There are far too many moments like this wherein I read chunks of information and have no idea what I was meant to understand about the characters involved.

I think this novel failed for me so profoundly because, in a sense, O’Nan created too well the tedium, the long, boring horror that comes along with searching for the missing, but also because the most interesting person in the book is removed from the picture. The story of friends moving on after Kim disappears, of how her family copes, simply isn’t interesting. Kim’s complex nature makes a caricature out of her awkward sister, underachiever boyfriend, over-involved mother. You want more of Kim and you can’t have her. I remember how much I loved being in Manny’s industrious and conflicted mind in Last Night at the Lobster and how haunted I was by tortured Tim in The Night Country and I never developed that connected feeling reading this book. It was… just not as fine as O’Nan’s other books.

It feels odd to have good book disappoint me. I can’t wholly recommend this book but I can say you could definitely and probably will read worse than this novel. But I don’t sense this book will be an annual book for me, one I reread when the season is right.