Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear and Emergent Dialogue
Matthew Salesses's Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear is a novel about doubling and disappearing. It's funny and frightening and sad. It's also very much interested in what is real and what is imagined, what is said out loud and what is merely thought.
I've written before about indirect dialogue, the way it can merge interiority with a scene, and the way it processes dialogue to create a new layer of meaning. I believe that purposefully blurring the line between what is thought and what is spoken can bring a particular perspective into sharper focus.
In Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear, Salesses takes indirect dialogue to a breathtaking extreme. Watch how it happens:
We were binge watching a K-drama together, one I had planned to watch alone, little by little, to make it last. She had started it by herself, so I had to guess what had happened in the first four episodes I hadn't seen. Luckily I had consumed dozens of these shows. In a sixteen-episode arc the first four episodes were usually about the process of one main character realizing they were in love with the other. This only became conscious love in the fourth episode. The first three episodes were always about unconscious love, because they were about taking actions before taking responsibility. In the fourth episode love became conscious to one half of a couple; in the eighth episode love became conscious to both. Then the show became about taking responsibility for what they knew was there.
The lesson was that people act freely on their love until they know they are loved back.
Sandra pounded her fist against her chest, frustrated somehow by my understanding of things.
"I just want to know where the show stands—at this point in time—in the episode arc."
She hit pause, pushed her glasses up her nose, and glared at me. This was another difference between her and Yumi: Yumi never wore glasses, only contacts. The glasses flustered me.
"Did I get it wrong?" I asked. "Do neither of them know they love each other? Do both of them know? Have they already kissed?"
It was rare to get the main couple together early, since what seduced viewers was seduction, not contentment.
"Is it fun for you," Sandra asked, "to watch TV like that? Like it's math?"
We start with interiority, with Matt (the narrator) explaining his theory of K-drama for the reader. We are inside his head. But Sandra pounds her fists in frustration at his ideas. So she's heard him? How has she heard him? Has Matt been describing K-drama out loud after all? It doesn't seem like it, and yet she responds. So has Matt's account been a summary of their conversation? Or is she reading his mind? It seems strange to posit that Sandra simply knows Matt's thoughts. And yet, what has the reader been doing but reading Matt's mind?
I should say it makes absolute sense for the character we know to lose track of what is said out loud and what is merely thought. He even dreams about doing so later on in the book. But I'm less interested right now in its plausibility than its effect on the reader.
The dialogue—if that's what it is—is so indirect it feels like interiority. When it's revealed to be a sort of dialogue, the revelation creates a particular sensation in the reader—an unsettling and also a sort of mind meld.
Because it seems as if Matt is just thinking about K-drama, when Sandra responds to his thoughts, it's startling. When my brain is startled at Sandra's response, when I wonder how she knows what only I am supposed to know he's been thinking, there's a crash of all three brains. It creates an incredible moment of intimacy when I get to exist in the space between the minds of the characters.
I think it happens because of the jumble of brains. Three of us know the same thing, and it's hard—in that moment of surprise—to decipher where the thoughts originate. So it feels like all three of us are experiencing the same thoughts at the same time.
When I slow down and analyze the moment, of course, I see that there is more to what my brain has intuited.
Matt's interiority explaining K-drama is like a direct conversation with the reader—that's how interiority works. Compare this to a bit of dialogue in which Matt explains K-drama to Sanda—the reader would be at more of a remove, an overhearer rather than a participant in the conversation. I suppose interiority is already a level of intimacy. But consider what happens when I suddenly realize that Matt has been talking to Sandra all along, even as he was talking directly to me. For just an instant, I become Sandra.
Then when Sandra responds to Matt's thoughts on K-drama, we already know Matt's explanation of it. He has positioned us to be on his side. This helps to merge us with his consciousness as well as Sandra's. We are also him because we know his thoughts.
Interiority often creates this paradox. In first-person narration, the reader feels aligned with the speaker, as if we are inside the speaker's brain, looking out through their eyes at the world. And that's great! But then when the narrator uses interiority to speak directly to us, we shift to become the listener. So we're speaker and listener at the same time.
Somehow this passage takes that a step further. In this strange moment, the reader becomes listener, speaker, and overhearer all at once. And that triad of brains is a merging of separate consciousnesses.
The interiority-to-dialogue bridge also lets us experience Matt's argument about K-drama two ways. Matt presents his ideas as fact, rather than opinion. Whether or not the reader agrees with his explanation, it's presented as uncontested. This makes Sandra's argument hit harder. We didn't know we were in the middle of an argument. We didn't know we'd have to take a side. We're unsettled when we scramble to choose one. And for that instant when we have to choose, we are inside both arguments.
It also illuminates an important quality of subtext. Readers who know K-drama will have their own opinion on how it works and whether Matt is right or wrong, which will enrich their experience of this scene. Perhaps their third perspective on it will scramble and then merge with the other two. Subtext always works this way, as a gift for the initiated. Those who don't know K-drama will necessarily miss the extra richness. (That's fine, by the way. But when using subtext, it's worth considering who you give the extra gift to and who you necessarily exclude.)
The later part of this passage is great dialogue—I can't help commenting on that, too!
I love how most of Sandra's lines are nonverbal—fist pounding, pointedly pausing the TV, adjusting her glasses, glaring. She doesn't need to talk out loud either, because her gestures communicate so well. Also, we get it! She's just trying to enjoy some TV, but this guy keeps lecturing.
And look at the way that's layered through Matt's perspective. I'm particularly intrigued when he says she is "frustrated somehow by my understanding of things." I'm pretty sure Sandra would call it his "misunderstanding."
Then that final line of Sandra's is so good: "'Is it fun for you,' Sandra asked, 'to watch TV like that? Like it's math?'" I like the way the dialogue tag puts a pause after "fun for you." I can feel her glare intensifying between her words.
But more important, instead of answering Matt's question, Sandra uses her own questions to answer the situation, telling us about her unique perspective and frustration. She lets us see his words through a different lens, adding an important layer to the scene and to their relationship.
Also it just feels like how people talk. In real life, we don't always answer questions. One character shouldn't necessarily follow the script set by the other.
In a later scene, Matt's daughter chastises him for "talking to yourself" after he has explained something in a way that seemed to be just for the reader. This happens in a dream, but I think that makes it even more profound. The intentional blurring of the border between thought and speech is like that between the real and the imagined. And it's in that strange space that Salesses makes really interesting things happen.