Some say Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner is the book of Summer 2019. But I feel it could be one of the books of my entire lifetime. I’ve never felt so seen. And although I’m determined not to spoil a word for anyone, a vital plot point is that one important character stops answering their phone or returning messages. I won’t say they go missing.
“Fleishman” isn’t a Gone Girl-style crime thriller. Instead, it is a coruscating, dizzying, razor-sharp attack on modern marriage, fatherhood, Tinder sex, social hierarchical woes and midlife unravelling. Still, the 384-page plot begins with one formerly always available person simply falling off the grid. No calls returned. No little grey iMessage dots to suggest a half-formed, then thought-better-of response. No lofty “sorry I’ll be away” auto-replies to say there will be a suspension of communication.
And this, in the modern age, when we are never allowed to be out of touch, is clearly weird. In the very least it is rude, selfish and flaky. As an often awol woman (translation: a sporadically introverted and occasionally antisocial woman) I’ve watched with some curiosity as the definitions around what is classed as “missing” tighten.
For example, the YouTube star Marina Joyce has now been subject to two separate missing person police inquiries after failing to update her makeup tutorial Vlog. On both occasions she was found alive and well. It’s nice that her fans care about her, one might think. Earlier this month, 39-year-old Northern Irish woman Danielle Anderson was declared missing after she failed to catch a Sunday morning flight home from Berlin. Quickly the disappearance was logged with the British embassy, tweeted about wildly and subject to dozens of news stories written in the 24 hours before she was found safe. Maybe she fancied a break, I speculated. This is an unpopular opinion.
I feel the same each weekend as social media floods with frantic appeals about friends who’ve mysteriously vanished in nightclubs, who didn’t text to say goodbye and are now not answering their phone. Are people not allowed to shag someone they don’t want to admit to shagging any more? Last year, I watched as a mother appealed for news of her 19-year-old son who was missing at Reading festival. He had not returned to his tent. Now he wasn’t answering his phone. Hang on, is that missing? Or was that just, strictly speaking, living? (It turned out he was having a great time.)
I feel conflicted about this. Yes life after iPhones is marvellous, but in the 90s I ran wild across London, up to all kinds of no good, staying out for days, keeping my own counsel entirely. My parents up north would not speak to me for weeks. Sometimes, life back in the days when we had one shit Nokia and a landline between five friends seems blissful. One was permitted lost weekends and periods of secret skulduggery or just to lie about reading a paperback without the sense six people were owed a text message. Yes, things took longer, and one needed to make plans and keep them, but being off the grid was normal. Today, not replying, as Brodesser-Akner suggests, is a truly radical act.
Of course, most of the constant surveillance that masquerades as friendship or being a good colleague or family member is coming from a good-hearted place. Or at least a tense place. We are all so much more informed about how easily bad things happen. A diet of real life murder podcasts has primed to us to spot red flags and suspicious activity everywhere. When YouTuber Marina Joyce’s boyfriend said she was perfectly fine, just not making videos, this was of course seen by some as further evidence she was not at all fine. You can never be free now that you’ve invited the busy bodies from the school gate to a WhatsApp Mums’ group, or while you’re part of the “Famalam group”, where the ongoing tensions betwen your cousins and your mother are beamed to your phone 24/7. You’re expected to care about all of this. Have you not looked at those links to the potential Christmas holiday cottage yet? Are you there? Can you read this? Are you OK? Why are you not checking in?
Sometimes I go missing. It is my right as a human being, and those close to me have grown tolerant of it. I will be uncontactable and my whereabouts unaccountable. Without warning, I delete all the noisy, nagging apps entirely, let voicemails mount up for days and let my inbox grow like Japanese knotweed. I do not explain. I literally vanish.
Except not literally. I’m probably in my house watching Tom Hanks movies, tweezering my facial hair, eating cartons of Quorn cocktail sausages and pressing the cat’s nose. But in the current climate it feels like when Agatha Christie got in her Morris Cowley and disappeared off into Surrey. The truth is very boring: we all need space to breathe sometimes. Grace Dent Is Not In Trouble.