REVIEW: Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey

In the beginning, before the Word there were the words in the beginning, a seeding from which nothingness gains form.

Before the first sentence of her laser smart, affecting, confounding, recalcitrant, infuriating, relentlessly stylish debut novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing, Catherine Lacey presents the entirety of John Berryman’s “Dream Song 29.” Berryman’s career is frequently reduced to the shaping forces of two monumental events: the gunshot suicide of his father and the poet’s own suicidal leap. In the first stanza of “Dream Song 29,” Berryman’s alter ego, Henry, assesses the eternal wracking of that first death, an undoing that forever changed the poet’s name and possessed such gravity that no passage of time could ever budge its crushing weight.

Lacey’s novel, too,begins with an absence — without a word, the narrator, Elyria, drops out of her life in New York, abandoning her home, her math professor husband, and her steady job writing for a network soap opera in order to pursue an off-handed invitation from an older poet, Werner, who amid casual discussion had made the type of if you’re ever in my neck of the woods offer that is commonly extended when no one ever comes to that particular neck of the woods: in this case, a homestead in the middle of nowhere on the opposite side of the world.

New Zealand.

Before swapping one “New” for another, Elyria’s adult life was shaped by the loss of her adopted sister, Ruby, a promising math prodigy who leapt to her death in a campus courtyard. The professor was the last person to see Ruby alive — he and Elyria met and found connection through the bond of this negation.

During the opening sequences of the novel, Elyria appears much like one of the female narrators in Laura van den Berg’s short stories, the competent women of “We Are Calling To Offer You A Fabulous Life” or “Up High In The Air,” women who are compelled by an urgent need to shed the burdens and trappings of their dissatisfying lives. There is such a buildup, such a nasty crust formed of one faulty decision crystalized atop another, that the only way to stay whole is with a clean break from the past.

What is your greatest fear? a clinician asks Elyria amid a battery of questions.

I did everything wrong, she answers.

The italics are Lacey’s: Eschewing double-quotes, all of the novel’s spoken dialogue is formatted with italics, infusing conversed words with a sense of remoteness and otherness while emphasizing the indeterminate passage of time between the events and their narration. Elyria’s voice is delivered from a distance that ranges from a few seconds to a gap of several years. Can standards of time or a notional future exist in a state of emptiness? Reading Heidegger, I got lost in being and haven’t yet found my way to time, but in the world of Nobody Is Ever Missing the past seems measured more by resonance and magnitude than temporal distance. Elyria only looks back — never forward — and from the limited “now” of her vantage point everything else is “then.”

“Being alone was what I wanted; being alone was not what I wanted. I didn’t want to want anything; I wanted to want everything.”

If you believe that storytelling begins with a character who wants and needs something and must face obstacles in order to get it, Catherine Lacey means to defy your expectations.

“Every questioning is a seeking,” Heidegger wrote in Being and Time. “Every seeking takes its lead beforehand from what is sought.”Elyria doesn’t simply seek to discard the clinging matter of her life; she wants to lose herself without holding any corresponding motivation to find herself. Though disdaining the hollow person she’s become in married life, Elyria is also suspicious of her core, feeling that deep down she has “a wildebeest renting a room in her.” Hitchhiking toward Werner’s farm, she sometimes suppresses this wildebeest nature and sometimes lets it snort. In her prior life, Elyria had imagined resolving arguments with her husband by stabbing herself in the eyeball or detonating an explosive in his head: Only the flimsy line of inhibition separates the instinct to horrific violence and the thrust for blood.

In the third and final stanza of “Dream Song 29,” Henry feels so unmoored that the only way he knows for sure he hasn’t lost himself to the animal state of a compulsive killer is by making a mental tally of all those close to him; “nobody is ever missing”in this reckoning, and that tenuous accounting is the only assurance he’s maintained a grip.

Somewhere in Henry is John Berryman (born John Allyn Smith, Jr.): the thread of identity. Richard Wright explored the severance of this thread in The Outsider, during which a depressed postal worker is beset by debt problems, marriage problems, mistress problems, booze problems, a mass of problems begetting problems until a way out presents itself: a fatal subway crash and a mistake identifying him among the dead. Relieved of his burdensome identity, cutting all ties to his past, the postal worker walks away from his old life and into an unbound freedom within which nothing prevents him from committing murder after murder:

“He had acted, had shattered the dream that surrounded him, and now the world, including himself in it, had turned mockingly into a concrete, waking nightmare from which he could see no way of escaping. He had become what he had tried to destroy, had taken on the guise of the monster he had slain.”

As she thumbs rides across New Zealand, one friendly Kiwi after another warns Elyria of the risks of being raped and/or dismembered by some crazed man in a van.

Men in vans offer Elyria rides. She accepts. They tend to be agreeable sorts. Wanting nothing but the minimum from others, Elyria tends not to be an acute perceiver of character; rather than generating friction through interaction or conflict with offbeat locals, Lacey creates momentum through sheer prosodic dexterity:

“It became clear after some hours of waiting on the narrow, tree-lined road where the nurse had let me out that some places are not good places to be a person and not a car and that was where I was; occasional cars sped around the road bend and I ended up frightening the drivers the way that wild animals do when they stand stunned dumb in a road. The cars would slow or swerve or honk and I wished I could honk back — ­I know, I know — why am I here?

Using short chapters to stop for breath, Lacey stacks clause upon clause with unerring rhythm, one of those glorious gifts that not everyone’s been given and guided by that fabulous inner ear she teases out assonances and upends predictable constructions, modulating her phrases with repetitions, inversions, and tautly-strung wit, the novel propelled by sentences that wind their way inward before springing back out with renewed velocity.

Also similar to van den Berg — and underscored by the equations chalked by Elyria’s husband — Lacey writes characters who often function in accordance with physical principles, creating a world populated by conduits and catalysts and voids, with universal laws acting upon relationships, movement, and the order of things. Elyria appears as something loose and negatively charged, briefly connecting to anything positive in a superficial bond that quickly degrades under the stress of her malaise.

Reaching Werner’s farm, Elyria finally finds a sort of precarious balance. She entertains no intellectual, sexual, philosophical, or psychological interest in the older poet; his casual offer seeded her decision to leave and in his presence she achieves a sustainable form of stasis. Sustainable for her but not him. Elyria’s elemental sadness weighs so heavily that he finally asks her to “remove herself” from his presence.

And here, at the midpoint of the book, Elyria is set fully adrift. Her initial leaving at least offered the orientating points of departure and destination; once “removed” from Werner’s farm, she has nowhere to be and neither the desire nor the means to get there. She sleeps in parks and eats from trash cans, occasionally accepting a kindly-offered meal or a temporary shelter before shuddering loose and wandering again.

“I hiked up a path and into the woods, thinking about and almost having a real feeling — a feeling like, this is really sad, this is a sad place to be, a sad part of my life, maybe just a sad life. The woods were not particularly beautiful. I was not impressed by the trees.”

Offering a lay psychoanalysis of a fictional character is — at best — foolhardy, but as Elyria’s emptiness grows and acts upon itself she offers the reader an intensely-realized view of depression, where nothing positive seems possible and the defiance of help is an insidious, self-perpetuating aspect of the pathology: Were Elyria capable of accepting a helping hand to boost her toward a more satisfying way of being, she wouldn’t be stuck in such a hole in the first place.

The novel can feel like picking up a child when they’ve gone deliberately boneless, a passive disembodying through which they actively become heavier, their entire mass nothing but displaced resistance, and as they flop and sandbag you become increasing frustrated, muttering curses you swore you wouldn’t voice and laboring against that deadweight, forced into being someone you didn’t intend to be simply in order to move from Point A to Point B. In this manner, a smaller body is able to exert control over a larger one. This “child” metaphor is not a paternalistic infantilizing of either author or narrator; within the novel, the notion of “growing up” or existing as a grown-up is a recurring concern, and in-keeping with her character, Elyria at times idealizes, and at other times wishes to transcend, a child-like existence. Elyria was 22 when she married, with her husband a decade older and possessed of an array of independent life experiences she feels she lacked:

“What I meant was I knew I had to do something that I didn’t know how to do, which was leaving the adult way, the grown-up way, stating the problem, filling out the paperwork, doing all these adult things, but I knew that wasn’t the whole problem, that I didn’t just want a divorce from my husband, but a divorce from everything, to divorce my own history.”

Elyria’s inability to settle into the adult world is largely bred by her unwillingness to say what’s on her mind. In her interactions, what she wishes (or imagines) she had said and what she actually does say consistently diverge: steering mightily from conflict, Elyria is left further and further from herself, further and further from the words of hers that act upon the world, the words that define her to those in the world around her, leaving her stuck between the interior world of the unsaid and the exterior world of unmeant compromises and capitulations.

In an essay “Against Bless-Your-Heart Manners” published earlier this year at Guernica, Lacey wrote about the “paralyzing politeness”that affects residents of the South, with “the tradition of courtesy and avoidance at all costs” inhibiting the advance of social progress. While arguing for the need to forgo tidy niceties in favor of candid speech, the essay proper is paired with a sidebar of off-the-cuff footnotes, a reflexive, reflective id in which the author speaks far more freely than in the body of the text.

Some things are easier done than said.

While still at the farm, Elyria asks Werner why lambs give up so easily when it’s their time to be slaughtered: “They are not giving up, he said. They are just being polite.”

In Wright’s The Outsider, a woman who fell in love with the ex-postal worker ultimately leaps from an apartment window when she realizes she gave herself over to a man who contained such a terrifying void. Her name is Eva; his, Cross:

“She had fled from him forever; she had taken one swift look into the black depths of his heart, into the churning horror of his deeds and had been so revolted that she had chosen this way out, had slammed the door on her life.”

Because Elyria wants nothing, and nothing is capable of causing her to change, Lacey is forced to find new ways of saying the same thing over and over. From this absence she pulls at strand after strand of remarkable prose, but a time comes when matters grow more dire and emptiness threatens to collapse on itself and yet above it all Lacey continues to pull more colored streamers from her sleeve. Time may or may not be real, but pages are, and the more she pulls, the more those silks begin to seem purple and frayed: Through repetition and exposure, terrific artistry can take on the appearance of mere legerdemain.

Following the epigraph of “Dream Song 29,” Nobody Is Ever Missing begins with an immediate grabber of an opening line, the first of many: “There might be people in this world who can read minds against their will and if that kind of person exists I am pretty sure my husband is one of them.” This dynamic lead indicates a time when her husband suspected Elyria was about to leave; only thereafter, for the entirety of the book, neither she nor her husband suggest he had any sort of involuntary ESP, as both continually operate from the perspective that he was utterly blind-sided by her sudden disappearance.

Can an object define itself from a false beginning? Or does that untrue step cause a thing to forever lose its way?

Elyria’s narration proves unreliable both from the pitfalls of her memory and psyche as well as the inconsistency born of sentences that shimmer beautifully but often don’t sync with the internal logic of their fictional world. The novel’s principal flaw and principal concern are one and the same: the inability to remain grounded in what came prior.

Looked at from a certain angle, this may not be a flaw at all.

As a seed of disharmony in their relationship, on their honeymoon Elyria’s husband tells her that she has “two options” with regard to how she can engage with her feelings. Elyria seethes under this binary, determined to prove that a galaxy of options exists. As the novel progresses, as Elyria fully removes herself from the mores and memories of her past, the existing narrative is left with only two possibilities: she will, or she will not. The irony and tragedy is that whichever arc she pursues, both come full circle to an identical end.

Nobody Is Ever Missing

by Catherine Lacey

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