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Malaysia Flight 370 And The World's Attention

A Vietnamese Air Force plane returns from a search operation over Vietnam's southern sea.
AFP/Getty Images
A Vietnamese Air Force plane returns from a search operation over Vietnam's southern sea.

It's been a week since the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, a week filled with misinformation, wild theorizing and the anxiety of the passengers' families. The story, and especially its lack of information, has the world watching and wondering.

For Alan Heathcock, our fear of disappearing is part of why the flight has us so obsessed. Heathcock recommends Gary Paulsen's young adult classic Hatchet, in which a 13-year-old boy manages to survive in the Canadian wilderness when his bush plane crashes. And Jonathan Evison focuses on the very real possibility of never quite knowing, as in Stewart O'Nan's novel Songs for the Missing.

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Beyond the mystery of wondering "where did the plane go?," I believe the interest in the missing Malaysia Airlines' 777 has something to do with our fear of disappearing, or having someone we love disappear. We live most of our lives trying desperately to prove and strengthen our existence. In fact, much of today's technology is geared to keep us more connected, to be constantly present in the lives of those we love, to make it impossible to simply ... disappear.

This existential desperation also explains the enduring fascination for the novel Hatchet by Gary Paulson. Hatchet is the story of Brian Robeson, a 13-year-old boy who, en route to visit his father, crashes in a bush plane in the Canadian wilderness. The pilot has died, and young Brian must survive alone. At first he thinks he'll be saved, but days go by, then weeks. He's vanished in the eyes of everyone he's ever known and loved, the father he was going to visit, the mother he left behind. In realizing he's disappeared, two truths come to Brian's mind: 1, He'll never again be the person he was before the crash, and 2, he does not want to die. With his trusty hatchet, he's able to spark a fire, chop wood, hunt. Brian grows stronger. He lives.

Eventually Brian's rescued when a pilot hears the crashed-plane's emergency transmitter. The pilot finds Brian beside a lake making dinner. He says, "You're him, aren't you? You're that kid? They quit looking a month, no, almost two months ago." But by now Brian's learned he's not in need of being saved, and because the stew he made for himself is ready, he eyes the pilot and says, "My name is Brian Robeson. Would you like something to eat?"

The thematic center of Paulson's novel, what speaks to our fear of disappearing like a ghost plane, is the question "what's saved Brian?" Was it the technology of the downed-plane's emergency transmitter? Or was it a simple hatchet and a boy who decided he would not disappear even when he couldn't be seen by others?

Alan Heathcock is the author of the book Volt.

What happens when the systems, institutions, technology and networks we've put into place for our protection, fail us? Consigned to speculation, how do we deal with the unresolved? What if the scant information we are able to cobble together, only deepens the mystery, and compounds our unknowing? What lengths will we go to for the answers we must have?

These are just a few of the many questions that have arisen in the wake of the unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Stewart O'Nan's brilliant 2008 novel, Songs for the Missing, though it features no ill-fated airliners, raises many of the same questions. When 18-year-old-Kim Larsen goes missing on her way to work at a Conoco station in a small Midwestern town, her family, and her whole community, struggles with her unresolved disappearance: making phone calls, assembling lists, canvassing the town, distributing fliers, and sifting through false lead after false lead, as the search unfolds in earnest. But in spite of all investigative efforts, and a blitz of media attention, what little information these investigations yield, serves mostly to accentuate that which is uncertain about Kim's fate. Kim's family doesn't know whether they're dealing with a failed communication, an act of rebellion, or a capital crime. She is simply gone, and nobody has any idea where she went.

Despite a perfect set-up, and all manner of suspenseful possibilities, O'Nan subverts the crime thriller apparatus, largely abandoning the tropes of the police procedural, in favor of a deeply human, finely detailed, achingly sympathetic approach to the characters, which critic Ron Charles called: "the thriller equivalent of watching blood dry." But that's the genius of O'Nan, a preternaturally empathic storyteller, with an uncanny eye for detail, O'Nan quietly elevates this uncertainty to torturous heights, and shows us the lengths to which not knowing will take us, long after our precautions, safeguards, and best efforts, have failed.

Jonathan Evison's latest book is The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving.

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Jonathan Evison
Alan Heathcock