This essay will explore the concept of the modern metropolis as a milieu in which a person can escape from the general awareness of society and become practically invisible to the world at large, living a life that most citizens are unaware of. Yet I will also explore how the social intricacies of the city can make it very difficult for some people to successfully complete this disappearance, perhaps due to economic or sociological background. Despite the opportunity for disappearance and reinvention of identity, the many ways in which a person can be traced in the modern metropolis make complete and permanent invisibility an unlikely outcome. Given the opportunity to vanish into a vast natural wilderness with no people or society, the attempt could be more successful and complete, but in the city there is an illusion of invisibility that cannot be sustained due to the eyes and ears of a civilization in constant activity. Connected this paradoxical theme of attaining ‘invisibility’, and yet in some cases more ‘visibility’, is the idea of the metropolis as a different experience for different people, with many aspects of the city being to all extents invisible, or at least denied, to some of its inhabitants. This could be for a variety of reasons, such as class, creed, gender or even sexuality.
These ideas are posed in relation to the novel Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd, and the film Desperately seeking Susan, directed by Susan Siedelman.
Before analysing the texts, it is necessary to make the themes of the essay clear, and to investigate some of the ideas regarding visibility and disappearance into the modern metropolis. The city offers an opportunity to disappear from society and an old life in a way that smaller sociological surroundings (such as a village) would make almost certainly impossible. Yet, paradoxically, some individuals can find it equally hard to completely vanish into the milieu, especially if they are actively being searched for. The experience of escape into the metropolis, and how complete this can be, may depend on many previously established factors, including class, creed, gender or sexuality.
The vast populations of the world’s big cities has offered the potential for a reinvention and life change to people from all backgrounds, probably for as long as they have existed. As Kerry Hamilton and Susan Hoyle point out, in their chapter to Unsettling Cities (1999):
Historically the city has been a place of freedom. It has attracted those formerly enslaved: it was where serfs went when they ceased to be serfs, where slaves went to escape their masters, where women went to evade censure. The anonymity of the city appeared to promise freedom, and often delivered it.
It seems as if the proliferation of other eyes and ears paradoxically makes the sprawling metropolis a more likely place to achieve anonymity than anywhere else. Yet, in the event that an individual is being actively searched for, their chances of maintaining such a faceless existence appear to diminish significantly. Unless the trappings of society are forgone and the information trail of identity erased, there is no permanent hope of invisibility. The website Skeptictank, questioning the possibilities of escaping modern society, offers a sobering appraisal of this:
Running is the easy part. Hiding is a bit harder. Staying hidden is the difficult part. The difficulties are determined by the resolve and resources of those hunting you. If the government wants to find you, they will…
Also, the act of disappearing into the metropolis also requires a close relationship with the intricities of the city, both its public and private spaces. If the modern metropolis is the labyrinth, then the ball of wool to navigate the journey is the confidence with which they enter the new world. Some vanishing acts are not permanent, as we will see in the characters from Ordinary Thunderstorms and Desperately Seeking Susan, and require a route back to a life of social acceptance and visibility. The city offers a prime opportunity to remove oneself from society, whilst ironically being in its very midst. The city is what it is precisely because of the volume of people there, and an individual’s relationship with hundreds, even thousands, of strangers could define how they survive in it. In his essay Urban ‘disorders’, Gerry Mooney opinions:
City dwellers are …involved in a delicate balancing act of assessing and negotiating the fears, dangers, risks and dangers of strangers in public places.
When an individual attempts to vanish into the burgeoning confusion of the city streets, they may also find it difficult to survive if they enter unfamiliar territory, or enter an environment they are not equipped to deal with (or in some instances, may be unavailable to them). Options on what one can do could be limited due to religion, race or ability, to give but three examples. A white Christian in the Middle East might find it difficult to vanish in a city full of Islamic mosques, but the same person would be less visible and more anonymous in, say, St. Peter’s Square. Plus, how we integrate ourselves and handle cultural shocks (and potentially blend in with a particular metropolitan environment) rather depends on our previous life experience and exposure to influences outside our regular life. As Gerry Mooney relates, in his essay Urban ‘disorders’:
Distinct social categories of people, depending on gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, caste, religion and physical ability, have different perceptions and different ways of representing themselves and managing the risks and social controls associated with being in cities…
In his 2010 novel Ordinary Thunderstorms, William Boyd offers us a scenario of a successful middle class man who is put into extraordinary circumstances. After a job interview, climatic scientist Adam Kindred meets a friendly stranger in a restaurant. After realising the man has left an important document Kindred finds a way to reach him and returns the document to the man’s apartment. However, Kindred discover a dying man who asks him to remove the knife from his body. Covered in blood and with his finger prints on the weapon, Kindred decides to go on the run (almost in a fit of pique). The man’s killer is hot on his trail, and is keen to retrieve the document, which relates to a series of fudged medical tests and a huge pharmaceutical scam.
The true problems associated with fleeing the law take some time to sink in for Kindred, and his money quickly begins to run out. Faced with a choice between potential imprisonment for a crime he hasn’t committed or sleeping rough and begging for money, Kindred chooses the latter. Even at this early stage in the narrative it becomes clear that completely vanishing without trace from society is no easy challenge, but in the short term Kindred finds it relatively easy:“He looked round, suddenly, hearing a police car shriek by on the Enbankment, siren whooping, and smiled to himself- all of London’s police would be looking for him, CCTV footage would be being studied, further calls would be going out to his ex-wife and family in Sydney, Australia…he was a wanted man but he was nowhere to be found….He had gone underground”
Although Kindred is quick to realise that any ATM machine or mobile ‘phone activity will betray his movements, he also realises that total anonymity ultimately requires a complete change of identity, including a change of name and appearance. Yet even under the name of ‘John 1603‘, as part of a religious sect, or as the name of his deceased friend Primo Belem (who he aims to resemble by way of a shaved head and trimmed beard) he cannot remain permanently missing from those who would have him found.
While Ordinary Thunderstorms may centre on the character of Adam Kindred, he is not the only one of the novel’s personalities that walk the fine line between being visible in the face of the city, and dropping from view altogether. Business tycoon Alfredo Rilke has his own reasons for keeping a very low profile, all no doubt connected with his nefarious business activities. Yet while seemingly keen to conduct his affairs quietly and modestly on one hand, on the other he is a slave to his inherent ego and too used to the ease of expenditure that success brings: “Alfredo Rilke only stayed in chain hotels- Marriot, Hilton, Schooner Inns, Novotel- but he always took an entire floor and however many rooms that floor contained”. This odd, contradictory behaviour also shows up in Rilke’s mannerisms: “He moved slowly and deliberately as if he was on the verge of frailty. It was an illusion. Ingram had seen him playing energetic tennis….”
For whatever reasons the character uses the sprawling potential of the metropolis to play his own game of hide and seek, which although for very different reasons to Adam kindred, still utilises the similar opportunities that the city offers. With less people to interact with, and without the cloaking maze of the city, he would have far less scope to present different personalities to different people.
Ingram is also a character keen on Machiavellian actions, to keep his colleagues (often potential enemies) guessing. His illicit visits to an aged prostitute and his penchant for not wearing underwear are secrets not even his closest family could guess, yet in the hustle and bustle of modern London his sexual desires can find their fulfilment and no one will be able to find him at these times.
Elsewhere in the cast of characters is the hit man Jonjo. The very nature of his work means concerns of invisibility occur to him every time he takes a new job. He even drives a Hackney black cab taxi in order to blend in; although the very fact that he is a hit man who drives a taxi and is often seen with his dog will eventually make him very visible. Only when people start looking for him do these everyday elements threaten to damn him. His work is silently acknowledged by the legitimate, legal institution of The Army, but he and his kind do not officially exist until the moment comes when they need to permanently get rid of him.
By way of a contrast the film Desperately seeking Susan offers a scenario where the main character loses herself in the urban labyrinth by accident (although you could argue she has a subliminal urge to adopt the alternative lifestyle she eventually experiences).
This character is Roberta Glass, a bored New Jersey housewife, who becomes infatuated with the personal ads in the newspaper, particularly the series of messages “Desperately seeking Susan” onto which Roberta projects her romantic ideals and longings. At this point the anonymity of New York’s many residents is emphasised, as Susan and Jim (the couple in the personals) could be anyone. Seeking an escape from her self-obsessed and straight laced husband Gary, Roberta takes her infatuation one step further by turning up at one of Susan and Jim’s rendezvous points at Battery Park in Manhattan. After Jim leaves in his band’s van, Susan continues to walk through the city with Roberta hot on her heels. Losing track of Susan in a Greenwich Village thrift store, Roberta purchases the distinctive jacket that Susan has just pawned. As this jacket is Susan’s trademark the scene is already set for a case of mistaken identity and the comparative ease with which Roberta can vanish. However, once back in the staid familiarity of her suburban home the routines of her usual reality return and her fascination with Susan’s world loses its appeal; the jacket is shed like a snakeskin and flung over a kitchen chair. It’s the surface of another identity, and Roberta has returned to hers, as much as she seems ill at ease in it. Only when the port authority locker key falls from the jacket pocket does Roberta’s desire to seek out Susan return. Their destinies are now entwined, and Roberta becomes involved more obviously in Susan’s fate. Her resemblance to Susan (particularly when wearing the jacket) leads to her becoming mistaken for the other woman, both by a gangster on the trail of Susan and by Dez, a friend of Susan’s boyfriend sent to watch over her. Add the slightly hackneyed plot device of memory loss and you have a prime opportunity to spin a story regarding the ease with which someone can disappear into the metropolis and also how difficult it is for them to remain invisible, when all and sundry are looking for you (even if, in this case, some of the searchers have Roberta’s identity all confused. However, eventually the truth will out). Where the paradox of in/visibility is most apparent is with the opportunities brought by Roberta’s amnesia. With no means of identification or personal memories Roberta can be whoever anyone thinks she is; she is as visible as her company wants to make her, and cast in which ever role suits. If she looks like Susan, she can be Susan for a while, when she walks into the ‘Magic Club’ nightclub another role is projected onto her, and again when she is found on the streets by the police (“was he your pimp?”) Which ever role is the easiest to paint on Roberta’s blank canvas. She has disappeared into the metropolis, yet is an active known player in its many games.
Roberta’s disappearance is not deliberate in the way Adam Kindred’s was, but the experiences of both characters in an environment they know very little of, is quite similar. Adam’s journey into an East end sink estate puts him in danger due to his unfamiliarity with this lower class aspect of the urban sprawl. His manner and dress make him far less invisible in this new world than he would like. Although Roberta is not intentionally intending to vanish, her middle class life in the suburbs leaves her naive and gullible in the face of the bohemian world of New York’s Lower East Side. “People live here?” she asks Dez, as he leads her up the fire escape to his apartment, above a noodle takeaway. After Dez assures her that people do indeed live there, Roberta explains, “I just thought it was kind of unusual that’s all”, emphasising her lack of experience, and making her far less integrated into this world. Dez’s knowledge of Susan is that she is a punk drifter whose natural home is the city streets. Roberta, who now believes she is Susan, cannot help but draw attention to herself by her blatant naivety. “You’re not at all what I expected”, says Dez, as he struggles to reconcile the stories Jim has told him about Susan with the young woman he has now met.
What is more pronounced in Desperately seeking Susan is the role of female characters in the narrative. The destinies of two very different women, is the driving force of the plot. Although both Roberta and Susan vanish in very different ways (one accidentally, the other purposefully), these female stories are quite starkly removed from the situations we find with male characters. The way both ‘disappear’ into the metropolis is different to the scenario we find with men, as are the challenges they face. Roberta comes into danger and experiences more moments of vulnerability due to her sex, than a man might, and this appears to be due to the way the metropolis is constructed (in a sociological way) and thus the way women are perceived by men (who have arguably been more instrumental in the way the world’s cities have evolved). In Ordinary Thunderstorms, Adam Kindred is in danger, but is shown to survive in an underground world of violence, even eventually resorting to it himself. Roberta Glass would appear to be just as alien to this new world, but male perceptions of a female in those situations colour her every move, right down to being arrested for presumed prostitution, based on the way she is dressed. The only exception is the real prostitute that Roberta shares a police car with, who is not as easily convinced by Roberta’s image, possibly as she is offering comment on her own kind. It is she who comments on Roberta’s belongings, used in her job as a magician’s assistant. “How do you use the birds?” is the memorably incredulous question. All this suggests that perhaps women are not as ‘invisible’ in the heart of the metropolis as men are. While this appears a very sexist view of women, it is nether the less ingrained into the narratives of these two texts, even down to the relative ease with which Mhouse is found, and in turn gives away the identity of Adam, who had been far more ‘invisible’ before he met her.
With relation to the ‘visibility’ and anonymity of prostitutes, there are fewer members of urban society who are as ubiquitous and also as deliberately ignored. Usually perceived as a problem, prostitutes are not always an invisible segment of the urban population, yet their number often work in secret and under cover of darkness, away from the eyes of most citizens. They easily disappear and retain a degree of anonymity. With this in mind, it makes perfect sense for prostitute characters to feature in these two very different narratives involving disappearance. The prostitute is simultaneously visible and invisible; they are tolerated and looked upon with a ‘blind eye’ by the wider number of society. In Rethinking prostitution, Graham Scrambler comments:
Who are prostitutes? They are women, men and young people who come from all social classes…Prostitution is accepted by bourgeois society (it is after all legal), but the whore or prostitute is not accepted. The prostitute is perceived as immoral, a danger, a threat to ‘normal’ femininity and, as a consequence, suffers social exclusion, marginalization and ‘whore stigma’.
So prostitutes are the most paradoxically visible and invisible of the city’s inhabitants. Invisible to all but pimps and the police, this is why a concerted effort to look for someone (who may be one of their rank) could prove quite easy. When Roberta is picked up as one it is by the police who contact Gary, who has until then had little luck finding his wife. So the prostitute offers a fine example in tales of the city to illustrate the paradox of in/visibility. They are simultaneously recognised and ignored, but often with negativity. As Elizabeth Wilson quotes in The Invisible Flaneur:
‘Who are these somebodies whom nobody knows?’ famously inquired William Acton (1968) in his survey of prostitution, published in in 1857: and prostitution was the great fear of the age.
Issues of social status and class re-occur in both Ordinary Thunderstorms and Desperately seeking Susan, and are influential in the way the characters can lose themselves in the metropolis. Between Roberta’s middle class world in Fort Lee there is a literal as well as metaphorical bridge to the perceived freedom of Manhattan and the exciting possibilities that could be there. In her secure but uninspired suburban life Roberta is bored, and wishes to escape; her infatuation with the personal advertisements seems to be an extension of this need to seek freedom and re-invent herself. On the other side of the bridge, down in the action of the streets, we see Susan, arriving from Atlantic City. She is a free bird, compared to the caged specimen that is Roberta. However, as fate confuses their identities and Roberta eventually claims Susan’s, the balance shifts. As Roberta accidentally claims Susan’s life as her own, Susan’s freedoms begin to disappear. Her belongings go missing (claimed by Roberta) and she is imprisoned after being unable to pay a taxi fare with the money now owned by Roberta. This is fascinating, for as Roberta wears the guise of Susan and blends in with the characters of the city, Susan’s losses land her in the very visible position of imprisonment. Circumstances outside her control have taken away the freedom of invisibility that comes with her drifter lifestyle. She cannot truly be herself now that someone else is.
The characters in both texts are also members of another invisible group, although in different ways. Both Kindred and Glass become homeless as a result of their circumstances and experience the indignity of not knowing where they are sleeping from the moment their lives go through a seismic change. In the case of Roberta Glass, she is oblivious to the looming dangers that await her and seems convinced that her memory will return. She appears unperturbed by her situation, if a little confused, when her unlikely knight errant Dez returns to offer her lodgings for the night. Adam Kindred, on the other hand, is very much aware of those looming dangers and, unlike Roberta, remembers exactly who is hunting him and why. But his predicament is the same; he has found himself homeless and without a bed for the night.
Whereas Roberta finds temporary lodgings very quickly, Kindred must sleep rough on waste ground. He becomes much more invisible than Roberta, who only ‘disappears’ when she has to leave Dez and is no longer sure of her place or identity. For Kindred he quickly finds it is essential he blends in and is not noticed, not just so the police and other parties do not find him, but so he can beg and steal without detection. Yet as time goes on the homeless person becomes ever more visible due to their appearance and smell. It’s a battle of survival between the two camps of the visible and invisible citizen. The tramp tries his best to temporarily integrate himself with the world that would rather not have to admit to him; and actually uses this reluctance to his advantage. He is visible and invisible. The well renowned text on the life of a homeless drifter, The Autobiography of a supertramp, offers an example of the experience of attaining anonymity in the city, in order to survive:
To escape from the coming deluge he seeks shelter in the public library, which is the only free shelter available; and there he sits for hours staring at one page, not a word of which he has read or, for that matter, intends to read, if he cannot at once get a seat, he stands before a paper and performs that almost impossible feat of standing upright fast asleep so as to deceive the attendants, and respectable people who are waiting a chance to see that very paper. To be able to do this requires many unsuccessful efforts, which fail on account of hard breathing, nodding and stumbling against the paper stand; but success has at last been attained, and there he stands fast asleep and apparently absorbed in a most interesting paragraph. He attains such perfection in this one act that he has been known to stand like a marble statue before a large sheet of costly plate glass, what time sleep had overpowered him in the act of admiring a baker’s art. The homeless man must always remember one thing, that though he may sit on wooden seats and stone parapets, eat in public and go in rags, he must not, on any account, sleep.
Another group worth consideration are the ever more present immigrant workforce of the modern metropolis, more particularly in the western world. In Susan we can see ghettoised areas of a city where the inhabitants are (in this case) primarily Italian or Asian. In Ordinary Thunderstorms, Adam Kindred encounters sink estate inhabitants who are mainly black and lower class; far removed from his own white, middle class world. With relation to both London and New York respectively, the films Dirty pretty things (2002) and The Visitor (2007) offer a more immigration centred view of metropolitan in/visibility. In Dirty pretty things, Nigerian illegal immigrant Okwe, who trained as a doctor, becomes involved in a trade in human organs. When he and his friends, a prostitute and another illegal immigrant, deliver one of the organs to another doctor, Okwe is asked, “How come I’ve never seen you people before?”, to which Okwe replies, “Because we are the people you do not see. We are the ones who drive your cabs. We clean your rooms. And suck your cocks”. Here is a clear illustration of the secret, invisible wheels that continue to turn and power the cities of the west.
William Boyd, Ordinary Thunderstorms (London: Bloomsbury, 2009)
Dir: Susan Siedelman, Desperately Seeking Susan (Orion Pictures, 1985)
Elizabeth Wilson, The Invisble Flaneur, in Postmodern Cities and Spaces, eds by Sophie and Katherine Gibson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995)
Kerry Hamilton and Susan Hoyle, Moving Cities: transport connections, in Unsettling Cities, eds by John Allen, Doreen Massey and Michael Pryke (London: Open University/Routledge, 1999)
Michel de Certeau, The practice of everyday life (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984)
Maggie O’Neill, Prostitute women now, in Rethinking prostitution, eds by Graham Scrambler and Annette Scrambler (London: Routledge, 1997)
Mark Liddiard, Homelessness: the media, public attitudes and policy making, in Homelessness: Public Policies and Private Troubles, eds by Susan Hutson and David Clapham (London: Continuum, 1999)