“A Vanishing Act is impotent and aimless. It revels in its own futility. Until the subject matter fades from view, takes with it all measure of reality and leaves you with a thinning thread.”
-M. Fallotin, Vanishing Act
Roman Muradov’s Vanishing Act opens with a tongue-in-cheek list of instructions titled “How To Read This Book,” featuring items like “1. With your face” and “6. More than once.” That list became more pointed the more (and more times) I read, and found myself asking: how was I supposed to read this book? You could read it as poetry, as something that conveys itself in an abstract manner, easier to feel than to follow. You could read it as a puzzle-box of art-philosophical ideas. You could read it simply as an aesthetic joyride, and appreciate Muradov’s obvious mastery of illustration as he careens between different visual styles. Or all of the above.
To be honest, I’m still not sure whether I liked it, or whether I thought it was smart or merely clever. Part of that is due to the fact that it is often esoteric and hard to follow (I had to actually write down the story as I read it in order to keep track of what was happening)--though not in a way I take issue with, exactly. It feels deliberate. But it’s a bit like trying to decide whether or not I like Ulysses. To judge whether an obscure thing earns its obscurity, you have to find a way to clarify it in the first place.
Another reason for my indecision is that the book seems to constantly contradict itself. Sometimes in a way that is obviously, playfully (and enjoyably) on purpose. And other times in a way that may or may not be. At one point, for example, an authorial stand-in proclaims that “In the process of artmaking, the artist must become redundant, and the artwork a mere byproduct,” yet by being so self-reflexive the book’s “createdness” becomes impossible to ever forget. Or there’s the fact that sometimes it seems to thumb its nose at the idea of intent and interpretation (that Tarkovsky “If you look for a meaning, you’ll miss everything that happens” thing), but the rest of the time is chock-full of coherent, well-iterated motifs. If these ironies are on purpose, they’re pretty great. But if they’re not?
It’s difficult to explain exactly what “happens” in Vanishing Act, but briefly: the story follows a collection of actors, writers, and TV production people through thirteen interrelated, more or less chronological sections, each illustrated in a different style. Most of the characters work on TV shows at a place called Studio 5, and have a tendency to wax philosophically about the nature of art. There’s also a social-media-famous dog named Barko, and an artist named M. Fallotin (the creator of something called Vanishing Act). The characters have all been invited to a party hosted by a famous actress, but over the course of the comic, each for one reason or another decides not to go.
Its central motif is well-summarized by the title itself: vanishing, and action. Absence and presence. Meaning and meaninglessness. The material and the abstract. Characters are constantly missing or looking for each other. Barko has slipped his owner, who spends a chapter trying to find him. A critic is supposed to interview Fallotin for TV, but has gone on vacation. The camera operator is asleep at home and has to be rousted from his bed. The famous actress ends the book dancing alone in her empty apartment, at the party that no-one has come to. Characters joke that a dog petted or stared at too much will disappear, while another chapter is dedicated to Barko--through the power of collective imagination--becoming a semi-deity. A couple discusses the subject of literally “everything and nothing.” Some pages begin dark and explode into color, while other chapters start out full of action and then fade out.
The back of the book calls it a “postmodern romp” and it’s true that these sorts of ideas (and this sort of formal play) are almost classically postmodern. Postmodernism is the philosophy of “reality is constructed.” It’s the point at which you stop trying to bend rules or make new ones, and instead realize how arbitrary rules are in the first place. So everything from the book’s shifting styles, to the use of icons in the table of contents, to characters joking about semiotics (and that’s not me being pretentious--it actually uses the word “semiotics”) serves to make you extremely aware of both the power of symbology, and its limitations. Art is “futile” in this sort of postmodern view (“A Vanishing Act...revels in its own futility”), because (a) reality is too big to ever fit inside a bunch of symbols, and (b) what is reality anyway? I liked Vanishing Act best when I thought of it as something that was not itself postmodern, exactly, but as something trying to distill several decades of postmodern angst into an elaborate joke. When I looked at it that way, suddenly all the contradictions made sense. It was good to feel frustrated, because the fact that art is simultaneously useless and important, effortful and pointless, real and fake--is a funny, frustrating thing.
Ultimately, Vanishing Act is undeniably successful as both an object d’art and as something wrestling with some very big ideas in a thorough yet lighthearted way. It’s a testament to the work that there is far more to say about it than could fit in this space. Yet I had trouble getting excited about it. Perhaps because I kept asking myself: why? Why this work now? It adopts the aesthetic of “the avant-garde,” but is it actually doing anything new? It’s not that an artwork needs a reason to exist, or needs to be relevant to the present moment. If the artist wanted to make it, that’s reason enough. But the thing is that postmodernism has been around for a while, and by now is a bit of a true-but-boring insight. It’s nihilistic in a way that runs the risk of getting old. So for a work to dive off the deep end in engaging with it, especially in a way that is almost “retro,” it feels--fair or not--like there needs to be a reason. I found myself most interested in the chapter having to do with Barko, since it connected the postmodern art tradition to the postmodern nature of the internet (The internet is at once this very consequential thing full of people performing and inventing themselves, and yet it is almost completely intangible. Simultaneously real and fake, like art itself.). But that chapter doesn’t seem to be the point of the book, so much as one angle on the book’s ideas.
Maybe it’s good enough for the book to be a successful tribute to those ideas. Maybe it’s good enough for it to be good to look at. And maybe I just haven’t managed to accept that art making sense is futile yet. But the book seems like it’s better than those things, and I can’t help hoping that it is.