Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
Disappearing Acts is McMillan’s second novel. Her first, Mama (1987), attracted considerable serious critical attention. With Disappearing Acts, McMillan took another step away from the mainstream of African American women’s literature, setting the scene for her third novel, the national bestseller Waiting to Exhale.
In the introduction to Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction (1990), McMillan talks about the “New Black Aesthetic” from which she writes. Unlike the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, the 1960’s, or the 1970’s, for whom race and racism were a major preoccupation, McMillan and her contemporaries are writing from a place where racism is simply a fact of life, unsurprising and unchanging, and not the only source of conflict. Disappearing Acts reflects this position: While Franklin loses work because he is black, the central story is his relationship with Zora.
When McMillan submitted the first part of the novel to her publisher, she was asked to write the whole novel from Franklin’s point of view; the editor sensed the marketing potential of a black woman writing a novel from a black man’s point of view. McMillan refused; that was not the story she wanted to tell, regardless of the commercial appeal.
Additional problems came when the book was published and her former lover filed a multimillion dollar defamation suit against McMillan and her publisher, claiming that he was the basis for Franklin. He found the character unflattering and said that he was unable to find work because of it; however, the case was dismissed in April, 1990.
Disappearing Acts established McMillan’s reputation as a writer with considerable popular appeal. The novel prefigures the issues and structure of Waiting to Exhale, which was also written in alternating points of view. Yet McMillan’s work has not received the serious scholarly attention given to her most prominent contemporaries, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. McMillan’s work defies the contemporary African American women’s literary tradition, and because of this, at least, it deserves some serious discussion.