Nobody is Ever Missing
By Catherine Lacey
At some point, most of us have likely wondered what it might be like to run away from our lives. Catherine Lacey’s debut novel follows someone who does exactly that, but it becomes clear early on that the history she’s unconsciously fleeing will eventually catch up with her.
On its surface, Elyria’s life in New York City seems ideal: she works as a writer of soap operas, is married to a math professor who spends his evenings scratching away at a chalkboard, and her every material need seems easily met. In a move fit for one of her scripts, she abruptly abandons this life and flies to New Zealand on the flimsiest of invitations, one extended by an aging male poet who once mentioned, in passing, that she could come write on his remote farm. Any reasonable person would understand the offhanded nature of the invite, but when we meet Elyria, she is not any reasonable person; whether she realizes it or not, she’s haunted by her sister’s suicide, and the novel’s extensive flashbacks and ruminations explore how this event has come to define Elyria’s adult life—including that math professor husband, the last person to see Elyria’s sister alive.
Elyria’s trek is drawn in part from Lacey’s own experience traversing New Zealand while she herself was “trying to quit New York,” as she put it in one interview. Early on in the novel, Elyria tries to explain to one of the many people she encounters where it is she’s ultimately headed: “I pointed south, or I think I pointed south, but I could have pointed west, or even north, and what would it matter? If you made enough wrong and right turns it would take you to the same place.” Such is the nature of Elyria’s wanderings (and the bulk of the plot), but Lacey wisely chooses to structure the book using short chapters, which keeps the pacing swift even when we start to feel the drag of Elyria’s journey. The short chapters have the shape and feel of vignettes, and they allow Elyria to move back and forth in time as she fills us in on the backstory that pushed her to leave.
Plot is clearly secondary here; this novel is chiefly (and ambitiously) concerned with interiority. The sparse and meandering action stands in stark contrast to Elyria’s own rich introspection, which tumbles and spins in a largely stream-of-consciousness delivery. The voice is built out of very long sentences, their clauses strung together with and, elegantly conveying the sense of Elyria’s unraveling. There are instances when this choice trumps clarity, but it replicates what Elyria is experiencing: a kind of disorientation, a self-inflicted tailspin into possible madness. We, like her, are captivated by the descent, helpless to watch and wander along.