The Hero Isn't Home
Nobody Is Ever Missing
(FSG Originals, 2014)
It begins the same way: a respectable young woman living an ideal life in Manhattan—“that perfectly nice apartment and absolutely suitable job and routines and husband who didn’t do anything completely awful”—disappears from her home in the middle of the day. Her family fears the worst, and Elyria Marcus—“Elyria! That’s a helluva name. Hippie parents?”—becomes a missing person.
If she didn’t have an abroad destination in mind, this might be true; if she wasn’t embarrassingly employed as a staff writer for another one of those soap operas, it might be true; if she hadn’t packed her backpack and slipped out the door while her sometimes-chokes-her-in-his-sleep husband was in bed, if her prodigy sister wasn’t dead by suicide and her mother wasn’t drunk and her father wasn’t missing himself, Elyria might be missing in a meaningful way.
But her sudden journey to hitchhike across New Zealand in hopes of staying at the isolated farm of a brief acquaintance who may, possibly, remember who she is hides its meaning in the beginning of Elyria’s flee from New York. Her self-conscious rejection of privilege and complacency challenges her awareness of the world beyond her husband, her family, and her past’s unkind spiral into the present and how she can recover from the jolt.
Troubled that her unhappiness may be hinting at depression, her dissatisfaction hinting at lovelessness, her confusion at mental instability, the 28 year old succumbs to her distractions with the sounds and noises of living over the articulate scripts of our lives—the fictions. “I had turned back into the woman who could fold herself up like an acrobat and store herself away.” Elyria’s streaming monologues, conducted through Lacey’s confessional humor and woman-on-the-ledge tone, veer from present moment introductions to strangers in cars to past conversations with family members at the dinner table. The blurred borders between the interactions lead to the predictable but no less poignant conclusion that traveling forward into the unknown requires an extended route from the too familiar past. “I went around hostage to those memories. An invisible person following me with a gun barrel to my back.”
Hyperaware of human trauma, passion, and sadness, Elyria feels her “suitable” life trapping her within a Rubik’s Cube of roles she’s pressured to play, from only surviving daughter to satisfied wife. “My past didn’t have any of those secret selves because everyone’s childhood and adolescence are more or less the same, dear struggle…” As a result, her self-conscious battle is with her most primitive instincts to roam, to ruin, to question the need for love beyond the self-love/hate that thrives on violence and isolation, those she calls the “wildebeest” inside her. “I knew the wildebeest in me was a heavy desire to destroy something without the actual ability to destroy something,” because the total absence of desire leaves a heavier burden than the desire for self-destruction, “because being occasionally destroyed is, I think, a necessary part of the human experience.”
The structure of the novel wraps like a cast around the fracturing mental state of the sojourning narrator as she reflects on the nature of the novel: How do we come to live in our own fictions? How do we “translate ourselves to each other”? What do we value when the novelty of new experiences turns life into a series of clever moments and endless erasures? “I didn’t want to find a way out of this life or into some other life. I didn’t want to lust after anything. I didn’t want to love anything. I was not a person but just some evidence of myself.”
While Nobody Is Ever Missing could blandly be called another “postmodern” novel, it better unfolds a map of navigating postmodern life, which we’ve come to define as the perpetual unraveling of identity, purpose, and passion in a life of frank uncertainty. Elyria may monologue stern censure to herself, “Enough, enough, haven’t you figured out that there is nowhere better or worse to go and other people put up with this fact and you, for some sickness, do not, and will you stop trying to see a meaning in everything, anythin…,” but Elyria’s journey has no classic Hero’s arc because the Hero has proven to be trapped in a repeating cycle of death and rebirth, self-discovery and epiphany. And Elyria’s inquisitiveness suggests that we might just be sick to death of heroes and their victories, that maybe all wanderers who search, all humans who fail, and all readers who page through to see themselves in an Other are incomplete pictures of themselves—and they have every right to remain that way if we “say that nothing exists except the present moment, that nothing has ever happened, that no one is here or not here, that no object is more than its action in a moment.” If so, then what is demanded of us? No suitable job, no prestigious titles, no legally binding vows have the power to fulfill a self that is destroyed and made new every moment. “This wasn’t a commodifiable realization, the kind of thing in college essays or inspirational books or the hardbound journals of gentle ladies. There was no ah, no ha, no realization or humor folded into this realization. There was just something real in my head—a rescue boat in a sea where there was no one left to save.”
A novel that begins with the exodus of one woman and her multifarious identity crises, Catherine Lacey’s debut work is a blend of upper class ennui, existential crisis, and the variant traumas of human existence. Of course it’s alternately comedic and tragic, of course it’s clever and self-conscious about its own cleverness, and of course it slips into insight in the midst of its most desperate insecurities. But Elyria is in contest with the personal certainty that “no one is anything more than a slow event and I knew I was not a woman but a series of movements, not a life, but a shake,” and to still her life, even after returning to New York, would be a simplified plot line she’d only write for her soap opera.
MEGAN HANSON is a master’s candidate with a concentration in literary theory at Brooklyn College. She reviews for Tottenville Review and has received awards from Glimmer Train and the Academy of American Poets. She teaches at Touro College and lives in Brooklyn.