’Nobody Is Ever Missing’: abandoning all stability to test fate

By Dwight Garner / New York Times News Service

Published Jul 27, 2014 at 12:03AM

“Nobody Is Ever Missing” by Catherine Lacey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 244 pgs., $14)

Renata Adler’s cult novel “Speedboat” (1976) was reissued last year and has caught on among a new generation of readers. It’s having a long, largely deserved moment.

The best thing I’ve read about Adler’s novel came from Katie Roiphe, writing in Slate. She carefully tucked “Speedboat” alongside Joan Didion’s “Play It as It Lays” and Elizabeth Hardwick’s “Sleepless Nights” as a sleek ’70s-era example of the “Smart Women Adrift” genre, narratives filled with “pretty yet melancholy vignettes of the state of being lost.”

Adler condensed her theme in “Speedboat” this way: “I think when you are truly stuck, when you have stood still in the same spot for too long, you throw a grenade in exactly the spot you were standing in, and jump, and pray. It is the momentum of last resort.”

Catherine Lacey’s searching, emotionally resonant first novel, “Nobody Is Ever Missing,” is about a young woman who pulls the pin on her own life, fleeing the country rather than staying behind to witness the collateral damage. She seeks not just a divorce from her husband “but a divorce from everything, to divorce my own history; I was being pushed by currents, by unseen things, memories and imaginations and fears swirled together.”

This 28-year-old woman, who bears a deep purple name (Elyria), gets her wish. She escapes to New Zealand, where she floats passively from experience to experience. She feels she is “a human non sequitur — senseless and misplaced, a bad joke, a joke with no place to land.”

Elyria is disengaged and depleted in a manner that put me in mind of the characters in the novels of Tao Lin, that Zen summoner of millennial ennui. Yet there’s nothing depleted about Lacey’s prose, which manages to be dreamy and fierce at the same time.

Let me show her off by zeroing in on one scene. Elyria, hitchhiking, steps into the kind of damaged car she knows should terrify her. The grizzled guy behind the wheel “was shirtless and had a body that suggested he lived on a cliff and the only way to get home was to climb it.”

She thinks, with the mixture of fear, bravado and bleak comedy that defines her, “This looked like the beginning of a porno or slasher movie and I didn’t want to be slashed or porned, but I did need to get about a hundred miles west of this parking lot and the sun was nearly setting and this car was the only one making an offer and I have always been unable to decline anyone’s offer of almost anything.”

Did I mention that the grizzled guy’s voice “sounded like vinyl played backward”? Or that Elyria — let’s start calling her Elly, as some people do — reports, “My organs let me know how much they disapproved of where I was sitting”? This scene lasts only five pages yet conjures a complete and complicated world.

Elly comes with a back story, one this novel wears lightly. She is married to a tenured mathematics professor at Columbia (he’s a decade older) and lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She works for CBS, writing soap operas. These details ring somewhat hollow. Lacey doesn’t tweezer in enough inside information to make these milieus seem entirely credible.

Elly’s sister, adopted from South Korea, was an academic prodigy who committed suicide while at Barnard. Her mother is a drunk. Her father is “in Puerto Rico doing cheap boob jobs or something.”

Playing the long game

“Nobody Is Ever Missing” is composed mostly of long, languid sentences that push into the night like headlights. They’re the sign of a writer settling in for a long backcourt game, one who is going to wear you down rather than go in for the kill.

Sometimes these sentences lose their way, stall out or end up doubling back on themselves. Just as often, they are improbably beautiful, or simply cool and knowing. Here is Lacey, excellently, on how married people sometimes gawk at one another:

“My husband was staring at me with this brand-new look of his, one I had never seen before but would see much more of in the future; he was looking at me like I was a very nice thing of his that wasn’t working quite like it should, like he’d found a defect, a defect that was extremely disappointing because he had spent a lot of time doing his research and believed he had gotten a thing that was guaranteed against these kinds of defects, and maybe there was some kind of glitch in the system and maybe he needed to have a professional assess the situation, give him an estimate.”

Lacey’s slim novel impressed me and held me to my chair. There’s significant talent at work here. One salient thing about “Nobody Is Ever Missing” is that Elly, even at 28, is so much more girl than woman. The heroines of “Speedboat,” “Play It as It Lays” and “Sleepless Nights” would consume her like an oyster.

“She spoke to me like I was a child, which was fine because I wanted to be one,” Elly says at one point. At another, “The voice of a teenage girl came up in me.” At yet another, she appears to be a “lost small animal with a passport.” Elly’s arrested development and her deep anomie arrive with a side order of brooding narcissism, one that can feel like a prickly assessment of the author’s generation.

Lacey can stand far enough away from her heroine to have an observer, an older male poet, throw this long spear: “You’re one of those women who think nothing is good enough for you, the entire human experience is not good enough for you and you want something impossible.”

“Nobody Is Ever Missing” gets so much right that you easily push past its small flaws. It’s an aching portrait of a young woman doing the hard thing, “trying to think clearly about mixed feelings.”