My copy of Catherine Lacey’s debut novel is dog-eared to the degree of making all those folded corners pointless. The book is one large dog-eared page, because you don’t have to flip far to find sentences and sentiments that make you pause and stare at the words, those simple marvels, and emit the sort of soft “oh” that usually comes after finishing a poem.
Nobody Is Ever Missing tracks the journey of Elyria, a 28-year-old woman hitchhiking across New Zealand after abruptly leaving her husband and life in New York. Her destination is the farm of a man named Werner, who invited her to visit after the two met at a party. This offhand remark, offered out of politeness, becomes a focal point for Elyria when she decides to leave. We join her on the side of the road, her thumb out, for the first of many rides with strangers.
Our first question is also the question of almost everyone she meets—the question Elyria herself struggles to answer. Why did she leave? The factors fall in place through flashbacks: the suicide of her adopted sister, Ruby, six years earlier, and her marriage to Charles, a math professor who was the last person to see Ruby alive. Yet the explanation is indirect, unlike the formulas Charles clacks out on the chalkboard in the middle of the night. Elyria is searching for something larger than all of the parts: the ability to escape life while still living.
Lacey’s prose is elastic; it stretches to accommodate a number of smart and poignant observations about the human heart. Elyria wonders about the “magic trick that other people seem to know—how to dissolve a sense of loss, how to unbraid it from a brain.” She wonders “which things inside a person might be indigenous or nonindigenous” and “what keeps people in the sense-making part of being a human instead of the senseless.” She wonders a lot. We’re deeply immersed in Elyria’s mind. We experience the untethering of her thoughts, the loose grasping for a world that grows increasingly bizarre to her. Yet the immersion is so complete and persistent that it makes her actions—the plot, her outward journey through the hills and cities of New Zealand—inconsequential. Strangers come and go, brief encounters with an assortment of bartenders, Bohemians, and truck drivers that might have pressed Elyria more. Even Werner’s farm, her supposed goal, barely registers on the plot. A chapter passes and they’re gone.
The novel is about the why and not the what. That’s fine, but the poetic, imaginative qualities of Elyria’s musings also ask for a reader’s patience. Metaphors abound. A promising one about the wildebeest Elyria feels inside of her, a dangerous force that “can throw all its beastly pounds and heavy bones at anything that attacks it,” eventually fades and is replaced by others: the inaudible noises that surround certain strangers, and the countless comparisons—mold, music, bullets—she makes to understand the realities of death and marriage. The overall effect is like a Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations: beautiful and smart observations about what it means to be human, but more like a list than a coherent whole. The reader may eventually burn out.
This mass of metaphor makes me wonder if Lacey could have trusted the inherent richness in Elyria and her decision to leave. Minor flashbacks about a lab experiment she participated in—electrodes and blood samples—along with memories of Charles’ night terrors, in which he nearly strangles her, emphasize why her grip on reality has slipped. But what if the deck wasn’t stacked so heavily that way? What if the tests and metaphors were scaled back and we were allowed to experience what’s truly frightening about the novel’s premise: any of us might feel the urge to abandon our lives and have to contend with the wildebeest. And the opposite: the people we love may disappear tomorrow. “Maybe it is time for me to be clear,” Elyria thinks at one point. I wish those dog-eared pages, in Lacey’s such talented and capable hands, might have forced Elyria—and us—to face those truths directly.