“I wanted this moment to stay because I wanted to just walk and walk … and I wanted to just be on the way somewhere, I wanted to be on the way forever without ever getting there because that was what I really wanted, maybe to go and go and keep leaving and leave and go and be going and never arrive.” (225)
The passage above pretty much sums up the themes this book expressed to me: lack of direction and aimless wandering that never arrives at any realizable destination.
I gave Nobody Is Ever Missing a chance. I actually finished it, so I guess that is some semblance of a chance, but in finishing it I have no more appreciation for this book than what I had expected of it from the impression I gathered from the first fifty pages of reading. In an attempt to highlight the positives, I can say that Catherine Lacey writes nicely structured sentences that carry the narrative along at a comfortable pace. As a collection of nouns, verbs, pronouns, and adverbs Nobody Is Ever Missing is a decent book. However, as an engaging story, it totally missed the mark.
The basic story is this. The first person narrator, Elyria, decides to leaver her husband of seven years. She decides to leave him without telling him. Elyria buys a one-way ticket to New Zealand with the goal of staying on a farm owned by an author she met once at a dinner party in Manhattan. She hitchhikes from Auckland to the the South Island with an extended stopover in Wellington before arriving on the farm. After surprising the author with her unannounced visit she overstays her welcome and is asked to leave. She wanders some more and eventually stays a while with a random couple doing chores for them but keeps to herself. When they politely ask her to participate in their community she bounces at dawn the next day because she is unable to socialize and participate in any community. She eventually gets deported when she lands herself in the hospital after being bit by a stingray and arrives back in Manhattan to find her husband has changed the locks and boxed up all her stuff.
Don’t worry, if I spoiled it for you, the plot isn’t that important. This is really the story of a woman’s psychological unraveling. There is some backstory to Elryia’s relationship to her husband that involves the suicide of her sister and Elyria’s troubled bond with her critical and verbally abusive mother. The first person narrative often loses itself in long tangential reflections on her past, the wildebeast that is crowding her mind, and her inability to connect with the people around her.
In many ways I feel for Elyria as a person who is potentially handicapped by a psychotic break. The choices she makes are clearly directed by a fractured mind that is only partially invested in the reality of the world that surrounds her. The trouble with this is that as a novel, her first person narrative is difficult to sympathize with from the perspective of a reader who sees through the terrible decisions and challenging situations she creates for herself. In other words, Elyria is an annoying narrator. She doesn’t grow; she does the opposite of grow as she loses grip on reality and perspective. Her greatest social difficulties are simple requests by people who desire for her to participate with them in some sense of community or relationship, for example:
“You know, we’re trying to create a full community here – this is important to us. And we can respect your privacy, you know I get that, but we really need you to participate in our ecosystem. Elyria. Can you do that? [This is followed by a page of Eylria’s inner monologue digressing about how this man reminds her of her husband and the way he looks at her is a mix of pity and long division, which causes her to go on a tangent about soap operas and a boy from her high school who was teased because he didn’t have fully functioning nerves and how she identifies with that boy, and after this long digression she finally responds] I believe I could do that, I said to Amos and he smiled, so I smiled a little and I was glad I had pretended to be better than I was because it would make it easier to leave because I knew I couldn’t live up to this pretend person I had made up.” (178-9)
After reading that that passage I could do nothing other than lift my palm to my face and shake my head in disappointment. I wanted to try to find a reason to like Elryia but she was to frustrating to like. The simple social requests of the people around her cause her to just up and leave in fear. She is constantly running from something she can’t even identify and she has no goal in her running. Time and again I found myself just simply rolling my eyes at Elyria, wanting her to gain some insight, achieve some goal, or at least get help for her psychological troubles, but she does none of these things.
Granted, although her marriage was free of violence or abuse, her husband does reveal himself to be a jerk towards her after she leaves and he doesn’t do much to defend himself. However, his actions are told from Elyria’s narrative perspective and the reliability of her perspective on their marriage is questionable. For example, she only refers to him as husband and never uses his name – this choice reveals how her mind has stripped him of his humanity and personhood, he has become a symbol to her and his symbolic nature makes it easy for her as she leaves him without a word or hint of her plans to travel around the world on a one way ticket.
Other than my lack of sympathy for Elyria’s story, I found Nobody is Ever Missing a frustrating disappointment in narrative setting. I’m currently planning a vacation to New Zealand and as I began this book I was serendipitously excited to learn that the narrative was set in the country of my soon to be vacation locale. However, Elyria’s perspective is that New Zealand is a boring place where birds are just birds, mountains are just mountains, and trees are just trees and no more. Her fractured mind fails to find beauty in what is considered one of the most beautiful and captivating locations of scenery on Earth. This only further inhibited my potential sympathy for her story.
Not worth reading unless you enjoy mental frustrations and deflated hopes.