The arrivals board at Beijing International Airport on 8 March lists Flight MH370 as cancelled. Photo: Getty
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The lost passengers of Flight MH370: why the modern world can’t cope with missing people

In a world where we expect everyone to be accounted for, missing people enter into the realm of fiction.

The passengers of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 exist. Somewhere on this earth, on an obscure stretch of land or deep under the sea, alive, or – as is now almost assured – dead, are 226 human beings and the vessel that carried them.

We live in an age of information that extends to the names, whereabouts, relationship statuses and latest culinary activities of anyone in the world we choose to check up on. Whether a “check-in” is logged or a “pin” is dropped, we take it as a given that, should we want to find out what a person is up to at any given time (spouse, child, rogue employee), that information would be readily and satisfyingly available. We rely on a warped yet comforting sense of community.

This assumption, I believe, informs a worldview that is particular to the digital age: when I picture a person, I picture their surroundings. I can contextualise any friend or colleague in a particular place and at a particular activity because I have access, often to my annoyance (stop with those Starbucks selfies, friend-from-home), to a minute-to-minute account of what they’re up to.

So the inability to account for a person, regardless of the fact that we would in all likelihood never have crossed time-zones with them let alone become internet friends, creates a state of unease that reads like a glitch in the matrix. Raised on algorithms, spreadsheets and screens – on systems that by their nature Do Not Make Mistakes – the absence of a planeload of people from the record creates a disturbance that extends beyond the human concern for the Malaysian Airlines passengers and their families. The rate of rolling coverage, and the pervasiveness of whispered back-and-forths on the streets of London at least, have far exceeded the meagre material from which they are extrapolating. We have been nudged to look again at the people around us and the millions more out of sight. Something of the safe “togetherness” we assume of technology has fractured, and we are irked.

To picture the passengers is to picture the abstract: a black hole of information into which pour a million possible geographical coordinates and a million possible fates. It is a wall of data, growing with every examination until we must accept it as an “unknown unknown”. We are inclined to resolve the contradictory, to unpick paradoxes, so that we feel safe in a predictable world that follows law and logic.

It is impossible to find a context for the passengers. Faced with both the unravelling of our networked world and with the paradox of the people who, like 226 Schrödinger’s cats, occupy some hazy territory between life and death, we have moved them unconsciously into the realm of fiction. No longer associated with a time or a place, they have been resolved into the iconic and the mystical. They join the ranks of Amelia Earhart and latterly, Madeleine McCann, likely to spawn column inches indefinitely.

It is a frustrating and impotent answer, a cognitive sticking-plaster that serves as much to tease as to satisfy. The missing are of such interest because they embody everything that contradicts our understanding of the world while not, apparently, existing at all. We cannot envisage something that ceases to be. Matter is conserved, we are told in school – things cannot be conjured and neither can they vanish. The world is of finite material.

So when all evidence points to the impossible, when Earhart’s and McCann’s and possibly flight MH370’s trails run cold, we are backed into a corner without reason or conclusion. And like morbid magicians who have pulled off the unimaginable, the missing move into legend. But while they are committed to memory and immortalised in print, the real events go unreported, and what is most likely the simple, agonising story of a premature end, is buried, like the individuals, in mystique.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism