Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"You Disappear"

Christian Jungersen is a Danish writer who has been published in more than 20 countries. His novels are Undergrowth, The Exception, and You Disappear. All of them have won major literary prizes and become bestsellers.

Jungersen applied the Page 69 Test to You Disappear and reported the following:
On page 69 of You Disappear, Mia wakes up her teenage son, Niklas, to tell him that his father stands accused for embezzling millions of dollars. Her son refuses to believe his dad could ever do such a thing. Just like Mia refused to believe it; it’s completely alien to “who he is.”

And that’s a pivotal point for the novel: what is a person’s character? In what actions and relationships is he his “real self” – especially when his brain chemistry is changing dramatically? For Mia’s husband has been diagnosed with a slowly growing brain tumor that has gradually changed his personality over several years without anyone noticing.
“I don’t believe it!” he exclaims, with the same conviction I had. He lets himself fall back on the bed.

“I didn’t believe it either,” I say.

It takes but an instant for all the thoughts I have when I talk with him to run through my head: Niklas as an old man, gray-haired and distinguished, perhaps a headmaster, perhaps minister of education, in a suit; Niklas as a baby on the changing table, peeing up in the air with his tiny penis, so I have to dry him and table both; Niklas running around in the yard playing with a wheelbarrow; Niklas’s photos on exhibit in the gymnasium library and us so proud.

“But Dad’s confessed,” I continue. “And they think I’m involved too.”

“Confessed? You?” He sits up again.

They aren’t so much thoughts as glimpses, and not individual glimpses so much as a state of mind: he falls on his bike, scrapes his smooth little knees; he plays in the sand on the beach.

“Yes. So the police will probably question us tomorrow,” I say.

“Yeah but of course you guys haven’t … of course you haven’t— ”

I haven’t done anything. And Dad only did it because he was sick. The police will understand that, and so will Laust, when he’s no longer so angry.”

The air in here is warm and pungent—and the room’s a terrible mess, something I’ve stopped commenting on. In the darkness, I see something catch the light in his pile of dirty clothes; from here it looks like a bra. A white, almost luminous bra among the worn jeans and shirts. I can’t go any closer to be sure.

“You have to stop now, damn it!” he shouts. “Don’t you two ever think of me? You keep doing one crazy thing after the other!”

I must accept his anger, I tell myself. I have to give his emotions room.

“Of course I think of you. All the time. And I’ll do anything. You just have to—”

“You don’t think of me at all, and that’s the truth! Both of you have gone totally whack!”

Room for his anger. It’s a state of mind: he’s overnighting at a friend’s for the first time, but at midnight the parents call, they say he’s crying, and I drive over to get him. His first year of gymnasium, and two girls and a boy from his new homeroom wait for him out on the street, they’re going to the beach with mats and a cooler bag.
You Disappear is a story about how one person’s illness can turn the lives of everyone around him upside down. The challenges of living with someone who’s suffering from dementia, or a stroke, or a blow to the head would be ample material for a 350-page novel.

But I wanted You Disappear to be more than that. I wrote it as a psychological thriller, a page-turning exploration of who we are in the “age of neurology.” How does brain science change our perception of what it means to be human? Did Mia’s husband commit the crime, or did his diseased brain? And how can anybody be held responsible for anything we do if all of us – the sick and the healthy alike – are nothing more than brains and chemistry?
Learn more about the book and author at Christian Jungersen's website.

--Marshal Zeringue