Stewart O’Nan, Songs for the Missing

Publisher: Penguin
2008, 287 pages, paperback, $15

since his breakthrough novel, Snow Angels (Doubleday, 1994), Stewart O’Nan has explored the human condition. More specifically, he explores the emotional and psychological depths the average working-class individual can go to when faced with tragedy. In a few of his novels (Snow Angels 1994, Wish You Were Here 2002, and Songs for the Missing 2008), O’Nan writes about missing people and the daily struggles those left behind face.

In the November, 2008 online issue of Backstory, O’Nan describes the events that led to his fascination with missing persons investigations. The summer he was seventeen, he was working the maintenance shift at a Lake Erie camp when he was coaxed by Ohio State police to help search an accident site. A vehicle had crashed into a tree; there was blood on the front seats but no sign of driver or passenger. Fortunately, the man driving the car and his female passenger were found, still drunk, on the doorstep of a neighboring house. Despite the wreck victims’ fortunate outcome, the psychological particulars that surrounded the search haunted O’Nan. He writes:

The search for or pursuit of a missing person underpins several of my stories and novels, including Snow Angels and Wish You Were Here. For twenty-five years I’ve been circling that dark night on Lake Road. In Songs for the Missing, I’ve gone back there to face it, back to the lake, and the camp, and the road, and to those people hoping (against hope) not to find what they’re looking for.

In Songs for the Missing, a middle class couple living in Kingsville, Ohio, in 2005 faces a parent’s greatest nightmare: one of their teenage daughters goes missing. O’Nan introduces Kim Larson, the forthcoming teenage victim, in the first chapter and arrests the reader’s attention by subtly revealing Kim’s unique beauty and magnetic personality. We also come to know and care for Kim through her mother Fran, her father Ed, and her little sister, Lindsay, all with whom we immediately sympathize. The Larson’s search for Kim dominates Songs for the Missing. O’Nan takes the reader through a torturously slow journey where desperation, fear, anger, and disappointment are fellow passengers. This deliberate narrative pacing, which potentially induces boredom in most readers, in this case discloses one of many stylistic choices that actually attributes to the novel’s success. The hurry-up-and-wait scenario reflects real life, and if O’Nan’s goal is to make the reader feel the agony of hopelessness and anticipation, he succeeds.

In Songs for the Missing, O’Nan additionally explores one of humanity’s perversities: the need to witness another’s suffering. Unable to express her own anguish, Kim’s little sister scours the Internet for tragic news reports in attempt to satiate her need for spiritual communion. Lindsay incessantly searches missing persons accounts before going to bed each night. Here, the reader is privy to the sickening truth behind kidnappings and murders, a truth the family must have intuited but were afraid to discuss:

In her room she found the missing, or they found them for her. A deputy on routine patrol. A woman walking her dog…

Some had been missing for years but still had active sites. The first-grade teacher from the little town in Georgia who’d been a beauty queen. The college track star that went jogging at dawn in her upscale Dallas suburb. Lindsay wondered if someone who was plain would inspire the same devotion.

In the spillway of the lake. In the woods behind the ShopRite. In a field off of U.S. 41.

Burned under the overpass. Wrapped in plastic. Bound with ligatures.

In a chest-type freezer. In a foot locker. In a duffel bag. In an oil drum…

Dismembered. Decapitated. Partly skeletonized. In the advanced stages of decomposition.

Those were the cases Lindsay took with her to bed, filling in the empty spaces as if these real-life nightmares could replace her own.

O’Nan begs for sympathy from his readers regarding the Larson family, and sympathy is easily offered. We understand Fran’s need to remain proactive, Ed’s desire to hide from and lock out the prying world, and Lindsay’s inability to communicate her suffering. O’Nan authentically delivers that deadening shock that sometimes comes with tragedy, but a sense of detachment also permeates the novel–a trait not necessarily attributed to the author’s stylistic choices or subject matter. Unfortunately, in the last decade or so our society has faced a bombardment of investigative and forensic television programming (both fiction and nonfiction), interactive online media, and detective fiction that–however believable or artfully executed– transforms Songs for the Missing into just another crime book. With all the real violence in the world and our current ability to immediately access news in progress, this novel simply disappears (as Lindsay does at the end of the novel) into the masses.

-Yvonne Guerrero