>>Finally got around to it: January 2015
The woman started laughing and laughing and laughing so much I felt like I had to laugh, too, so I did and then I realized we were laughing at how her husband was dead, which really didn’t seem so funny, and I think we realized that at the same time, and we both stopped laughing and there was that deeply quiet moment after two people have laughed too much and we let that quiet moment stay for the rest of the drive. During that silence I thought of that night when my husband and I were having one of the arguments about the way we argue and I went into the kitchen to get a glass of water but instead picked up a knife because I was thinking about stabbing myself in the face—not actually considering stabbing myself in the face, but thinking that it would be a physical expression of how I felt—and I picked up a chef’s knife, our heavy good one that I used for everything from cutting soft fruit to impaling pumpkins and I looked at it, laughed a noiseless laugh, put the chef’s knife down, poured myself a glass of water, and drank it fast, until I choked a little, and I went back to arguing with my husband and he didn’t know about my face-stabbing thoughts and it made me even angrier that he didn’t know about my face-stabbing thoughts, that he couldn’t just intuit these things, look into my eyes and know that the way he spoke to me was a plain waste of our life—but here in the car with the widowed stranger I didn’t have to feel any of those feelings anymore because I had left my husband and our arguments and my chef’s knife and I had come to this country where I could laugh, so gently, gently laugh at things that were actually not funny.
You know when you read a book, and you admire the work on a technical level, for what it is and what you think it sets out to do, but still dislike nearly every moment of the experience?
Yeah. I hate when that happens, too. Bear with me here.
I really wanted to like Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing. I wanted to, I just… didn’t. Beyond the simply gorgeous cover, I was intrigued by the novel’s premise: one day, twenty-eight-year-old Elyria Marcus buys a one-way ticket from New York to New Zealand and, when the opportunity arises, abandons her husband of six years and everything she’s ever known. Her destination once in New Zealand is the remote farm of a well-respected poet named Werner, whom she has only met once but is invited to pay a visit to, should she desire a break from modern civilization.
However, there’s a great deal more to Elyria than mere wanderlust. At first blush her life is rather remarkable: a Barnard graduate, she lives in Manhattan’s Upper West Side; her husband (whom she only ever refers to as Husband or the professor, which goes a terrific distance in dehumanizing him) is a tenured associate professor of mathematics at Columbia University; and for five years she has made her living working as a writer for CBS.
But there’s another layer to Elyria, and it has a name: Ruby.
Ruby was Elyria’s adopted Korean sister. More than that, Ruby was a child prodigy. And to go a step even further, Ruby was the TA for the professor Elyria would one day marry. And how did Elyria and the professor meet? Naturally, while dealing with the immediate aftermath of Ruby’s on-campus suicide.
So yeah, a bit of an unconventional situation, emotionally speaking.
But to dig through to an even deeper layer, there’s something wrong with Elyria herself—something that’s been there all her life, though it is never given direct designation. She dubs it “the wildebeest.” It’s the name she’s given the darkness of her own mind, which, as is evident in the segment posted at the beginning of this review, is volatile and potentially dangerous—to Elyria, and possibly to others, too. It’s what keeps her from connecting to anyone else, from feeling any sort of remorse or regret about the life she’s left behind and those who may or may not be searching for her. More than anything, though, it’s what keeps her moving forward.
Throughout the novel, the reader is privy to the never-ending internal battle between Elyria and the wildebeest, which at times feels most prominently rooted in sociopathic tendencies (the ability to shut off all concern for others and focus only one oneself, for example). However, as the novel progresses it becomes clear that while yes, there is something “off” inside of Elyria, it’s been fostered, in a sense, by a number of outside factors: a mother who was never really “there” and who always prized Ruby as the favourite child; a husband who admonishes her like a child and asks “Don’t you have something to say?” when she’s done something wrong; and a life that has never quite felt like hers.
Gradually we see more and more how Elyria has learned to fake her way through life, enacting whatever emotions are necessary for a given situation—learning how to say the right things to get people to pass her by without them wanting to pry too much into her life. But it’s when she’s faced with feeling genuine emotions, especially while hitchhiking her way through the New Zealand countryside, that Lacey’s approach is most effective and Elyria’s inner monologue becomes an almost panicked stream of consciousness, where one thought dovetails into another, and words and phrases are repeated as if her mind is stuttering over new sensory information.
This is the true central conflict within Nobody is Ever Missing. Elyria is not at war with her husband, or her mother, or even the memory of long-dead Ruby. She’s locked in a battle with herself and the horrible things she knows deep down she is capable of. But it’s not the violent thoughts she sometimes has that are the problem; it’s losing control, allowing any emotions to break through for fear of what might also step into the spotlight. And it’s because of this oppressive control—deliberately enacted or simply a part of her—that Elyria faces her current crisis of self: not knowing who she really is or what, if anything, she wants out of life.
Lacey’s writing reflects this conflict not just in the stream-of-consciousness-style noted earlier, but also through the use of italics in place of quotation marks when denoting speech. And while this is an effective tactic in the sense that it visibly filters everything through the narration, which belongs exclusively to Elyria, it also casts a chill over the entirety of the narrative. Even Jaye, who Elyria meets in Wellington, and is about the one bright and shiny personality in this whole book, is deadened by the visibly emotionless writing. I’m sure this all sounds fantastically nit-picky on my part, but it’s a genuine issue I have—feeling invested in a narrative to the same degree when the dialogue is handled in such a manner. I feel it mutes the content in an unfortunate way.
As effective as Lacey’s tactics are in conveying Elyria’s mental and emotional state, they are also what inevitably sunk this novel for me. Put bluntly, it’s exhausting spending any amount of time with Elyria. The novel is relatively short—just 250 slight pages—but I found I was only able to read in fits and spurts, as Elyria’s clinical demeanour and marathon-like chains of thought quickly wore me down every time I picked up the book anew.
The more time I spent with Nobody is Ever Missing, seemingly trapped in Elyria’s mind, the more I felt I was living with an alien species that did not yet understand herself, let alone the humanity surrounding her. And in her coolness, I found I lost the ability to empathize with her journey, or for that matter any part of her personality. From beginning to end, Elyria Marcus remained, to me, a mystery I wasn’t sure I wanted to solve.