Sometimes even the most gorgeously-written of contemporary novels wear me down. This year, in the course of trying to read more new books, I have discovered that talented millennial women often hamper their narratives by affecting ennui. I wonder, Why are their heroines so wispy? What does feminism mean to young women? And what are the authors trying to say?
Catherine Lacey’s elegant, spiky novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing, is the third debut novel I have read this year with an almost self-parodically self-destructive heroine. Emma Cline’s The Girls is the best of the three, the narrative shifting back and forth between the heroine Evie’s present existence as a caregiver/housesitter to her memories of a summer in the ’60s when she was peripherally involved with a Manson-like cult. Natasha Staggs’ Surveys is another brilliant novel, the story of an underemployed college graduate who goes from working in a mall survey office to internet fame after becoming involved with an almost-famous person online.
Lacey’s uneven Nobody Is Ever Missing is the least effective of the three. She writes long, lyrical, winding sentences, a cross between Kerouac and Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays. The narrator, Elyria, a brittle woman named after a town in Ohio, leaves her life in Manhattan and gets on a plane for New Zealand without telling anyone.
Why does she leave? Well, that’s not quite clear. It seems Elyria, a soap opera writer, has not been the same since her adopted Korean sister Ruby committed suicide six years ago. She married the math professor who was the last person to see her sister alive, though her alcoholic mother pointed out that this was not the best foundation for a relationship. The couple are happy briefly, but the marriage deteriorates: they fight all the time, their good memories are consumed by their differences, and in her husband’s sleep he is often bizarrely violent.
So what happens to Elyria in New Zealand? Well, nothing much. In New York she was upper-middle-class (or upper?); now she is a bum. She hitchhikes. She stays with a poet on his farm, but he kicks her out, because she is too troubled even for him. She befriends a transgender woman, but any relationship is too much pressure. Elyria runs deeper into solitude, sleeping on the beach, in a shed, and then settling for months in a caravan outside the cabin of a generous vegetarian hippie couple, Luna and Amos. By the end of the novel, Elyria has fallen to the bottom tier of society. She wants to be missing to herself.
Here is one of Lacey’s beautiful sentences, describing Elyria’s depressed thoughts.
And after I had deleted my history on Amos’s computer I realized that even if no one ever found me, and even if I lived out the rest of my life here, always missing, forever a missing person to other people, I could never be missing to myself, I could never delete my own history, and I would always know exactly where I was and where I had been and I would never wake up not being who I was and it didn’t matter how much or how little I thought I understood the mess of myself, because I would never, no matter what I did, be missing to myself and that was what I had wanted all this time, to go fully missing, but I would never be able to go fully missing—nobody is missing like that, no one has ever had that luxury and no one ever will.
The reviewers were enthusiastic about this novel, and many of you may be, but I am not. Lacey can write beautifully, and sometimes she does, but her sentences are often purple prose. And I do not comprehend the narrator’s wish to go missing, which must be very uncomfortable after living on the West Side. This uneven book, published in 2014, has its points, but is far from the best new book I’ve read this year.