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'Playing Dead' Teaches You How To Disappear

"To become invisible is to cast yourself as both the villain and the hero of your story."

If you're going to fake your death to start a new life elsewhere, don't pretend to drown yourself and hope no one looks for a body. That's rookie stuff. So many people know it's rookie stuff that there's a gray market of people who can help you disappear with a little more finesse. There's a consultant whose business is making people vanish wholesale; there are workarounds to prevent life-insurance flags; there are entrepreneurs in the Philippines who rent out corpses to add a touch of verisimilitude to your imaginary demise. And in Playing Dead, Elizabeth Greenwood is looking for them all.

The book hangs off the conceit that Greenwood herself considered disappearing to avoid six-figure student debt. Money's one of the major reasons anyone goes missing, so she was in good company. But it's an uneven through-line for a book that feels a little meandering to begin with. (Despite the power of a "pseudocide" narrative to make us all believe in resurrection, the Michael Jackson truthers probably didn't need as much space as they got.) And you might need to take Greenwood's on-the-page persona with a grain of salt; her asides are determinedly casual — she talks about the problems with erasing a digital footprint, "not that I've ever Googled myself (ahem)" — and her self-reflective moments tend to read like she's secretly writing a Girls spec script on the side.

Greenwood's essential question is meant to linger after its sound bites: Even as an academic exercise or a freeway daydream, what does it mean to want yourself gone?

But it's also clear Greenwood knew what she was about; the men she interviews — it turns out the vast majority of those who fake their deaths and get caught are men — open up to her, talking candidly of bailing on their families (or hunting down said bailers), and there's a grim glee as she gathers the minutiae of how to disappear. The bummer realities of trying to disappear in the Internet age are tempered with asides about the psychology of vanishing: Why we seek to disappear from a life that feels choked with responsibility, and why so many people who attempt this end up unable to leave the people from their old life entirely behind, "thwarted not by carelessness but by caring."

Admittedly, it's hard to keep such a lofty sentiment in mind as amateur narcissist John Darwin gleefully chats about the logistics of meeting women on the side when you're technically dead, or Sam Israel III explaining why he told his teenage son — and no one else, including his wife — that he was really alive. It's a mindset that stands in stark relief against the situations of women who disappear; most of the women mentioned are escaping abuse rather than money woes, which throws a pall of realism over the headier proceedings. Even Greenwood hints that starting over as a woman comes with its own particular baggage, though overall it's an angle absent from the larger story.

But at its best, the book delivers all the lo-fi spy shenanigans and caught-red-handed schadenfreude you're hoping for, while also sticking little flags in the right places about the things that really hold us to our lives. (It can't be a coincidence that so many men who fake their deaths get busted because they can't leave behind that great symbol of freedom: their car.) Greenwood's breezy style puts a go-getter gloss over it all, but underneath all its engaging anecdotes and "Should I Stay Alive?" flow charts is the heart of the matter. It's the reason that consultant Frank Ahearn has a book and a TV-commentator career, and investigator Steve Rambam found an audience for his TV show, Nowhere to Hide. It's maybe the reason you noticed the book in the first place. Greenwood's essential question is meant to linger after its sound bites: Even as an academic exercise or a freeway daydream, what does it mean to want yourself gone?

Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Icon.

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Genevieve Valentine