July 19, 2012: News - Duncan Fallowell wins PEN/Ackerley Prize for Memoir for How to Disappear.
Is Duncan Fallowell’s seventh book How To Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits his actual life story? True, he confesses on p236 to an impressive 40 ‘sexual partners’ in the month following Princess Diana’s death, ‘including a group of women in a naturist Jacuzzi in Brighton.’ And certainly he liberally seeds us with tantalising glimpses of private multi-generational Duncan, including the nosey little boy whose first instinct was always to boldly go and duff up any mystery. But be clear: this is no autobiography.
It is instead something much more… typical. It is, for the dorky genre-spotters, a mongrel private parts book - ‘part memoir, part travelogue, part biography,’ to quote his unusually accurate latest publisher Ditto Press. In other words, How To Disappear is not unlike, in form and style, his other classic private parts books To Noto, St Petersburg, ‘New Zealand’ (Going As Far As I Can): each a brilliant self-portrait of the feral Duncan Fallowell on location, as spotted in the looking glass of adored or maligned travelled nation.
Is he then a narcissist whose World Atlas serves exclusively as his mirror? Well, I’ll come back to that.
Let’s just not get ahead of ourselves. There’s the business of the cryptic title: How To Disappear. The early dread threat of a self-help book from California soon gives way to compelling true-life stories of strangeness: each of the four of the five long pieces comprising this book cradles a social Houdini, a personality once great or associated with greatness, who has performed a public disappearing act and now lurks shyly in the shadows awaiting (willing or unwilling) rediscovery by Fallowell.
Will force be necessary to open up these exotic clams? These misfits? Part of the joy of this book lies in wondering whether.
There’s reclusive Alastair Graham who was Evelyn Waugh’s ex-boyfriend; and the elusive social climber Bapsy Pavry (aka Lady Winchester); not forgetting the absent Maruma who bought the alcoholic Isle of Eigg; and who could forget dead Diana? DF himself ‘disappears’ in ‘Sailing To Gozo’ where a ubiquitous, faintly menacing stranger haunts Fallowell’s way on a quaint island yester-world.
|The feral DF: click to enlarge|
Like the little boy he once was, DF the man is first drawn to mystery or it is drawn to him. Not any mystery, mind. The mystery is usually well-connected and/or old world glamorama. And if his overriding instinct is to dispel mystery then his fix is to be found in the tricky process of unravelling it.
Take the case of Alastair Graham, for example. Fallowell first chances on the old dipso in a pub in New Quay and only later discovers who he is (or was) precisely. Sherlock Holmes himself would be impressed by the lengths to which Fallowell goes to track down witnesses for enlightening demystification: awe-inspiring. In the case of poor old Bapsy, who spent her life in posh hotels hustling for royal party invitations, Fallowell’s decades-long quest begins with the discovery of her potted bio in a book in India: he’s hooked by her sad eyes in the accompanying photo, he must meet her!
Fallowell’s dazzling analyses and asides (the book could be subtitled, But I Digress…) do not spare his own primal motivation: ghosts of a sort, such as the subjects of his book, absorb him. He is drawn to ‘the disquieting state in which someone is neither present in one’s life nor absent from it.’ He is the ghostbuster in the ‘abyss which can open up between being here and not being here.’ In his Bapsy piece, the spectre metaphor is bettered by reality when Fallowell has what could be an actual supernatural experience. He remains agnostic on what it is; but to risk ridicule from literary followers of the atheistic faith by writing about it at all is most admirable.
Fallowell’s ghosts come in all shapes and sizes and dead places sometimes tickle his inner Madame Arcati. He adores Pompeii as a zombified still of disinterred pagan sexuality while sluttish ever-dying Venice is subject to such a fantastic Fallowell flogging (a ‘desexed city’) that doges in the Roman Catholic hell must be planning revenge should he ever convert.
As ever, Fallowell seduces with an electric prose style which straddles knowledge high and street like a whore plugged in to a well-stocked Kindle. Why else would I want to read about some sad old snob like Bapsy but to relish the vervy manner in which he compassionately grants what eluded her in life: the right kind of attention. Pathetic she may have been but Fallowell’s mockery is only very faint: he observes the human constant in her, the disappointment that urged her pointless epic life.
Certainly no narcissist (to return to my question above) ever spent as much time preoccupied with how others tick as Fallowell. Beautifully packaged in art-worked hardback, How To Disappear is a beyond-fabulous wallowing in weird people in wonderful places - magical and mesmerising. Oh, and very gossipy, too.
How To Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits by Duncan Fallowell.
Published by Ditto Press
on 7 September 2011.
To buy a copy click here.