August 2014

Brian Nicholson

fiction

Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey

Elyria is traveling through New Zealand by herself, hitchhiking, and every encountered woman advises her to avoid the men that offer transport. She does not heed this recommendation, even as she recognizes it as good advice, but no harm comes to her from those whose offers of help could be a front for predation. What eventually lands her in the hospital is a stingray, an occurrence unforeseen to the narratives that she encounters present to her, but foreshadowed by an earlier passage about the violence that roils inside the ocean:

I went outside after my beer and looked down into the ocean and saw a stingray flapping in the water, a jagged C torn into his body and ribbons of blood running out, same color as mine, as anything's, and I knew that stingray had been chewed by something because that is all the ocean is -- big hole full of things chewing each other -- and it's odd that people go to the beach and stare at the waving water and feel relaxed because what they are looking at is just the blue curtain over a wild violence, lives eating lives, the unstoppable chew, and I wondered if any of those vacationing people feel all the blood rushing under the surface, and I wondered if the fleshy, dying underside of the ocean is what they're really after as they stare -- that ferocious pulse under all things placid.

Nobody Is Ever Missing, largely absent of any incidents of external action, has the same pulse. An inner violence emerges between divisions inside Elyria's self, between the past and the present, between who she is and what she can articulate aloud. Her internal voice, the book's own, expresses a self-consciousness in long and circular sentences that manifests externally as silence and sentence fragments as she lets other people talk. What Elyria wants from people, the virtue her inner monologue most often extols, is for them to know what she wants, or for them to give it to her unknowingly. Most often what she wants is some form of silence she can interpret as an unspoken understanding. This quality of quiet is referred to at points as politeness, but we are also told that lambs lie down to be slaughtered for the sake of being polite.

In one segment where Elyria does speak of her feelings, it is a flashback to a medical study undergone in New York, where electrodes are hooked to her scalp, and she is asked personal questions for a purpose she is both paranoid regarding and ostensibly understands. Her observers do not care about what she says, the content of her thoughts, but they want to see where her mind goes, what sparks light up when asked questions that allow for an inner search.

As the voyage is made across New Zealand, readers mostly follow Elyria's mind as it moves into similar flashbacks. They do not get to know well the people she encountered, in keeping with the perspective of someone wanting silence. She relates to her fellow travelers through a self-aware scrim that voices their words through the lens of her experience:

Outsiders recognize outsiders, I guess, though most of what she talked to me about was how being trans doesn't make you an outsider in Wellington because everyone here is so welcoming and tolerant and fabulous, how no one talks shit to anyone and even if someone did try to start shit, someone else would fuck that person up for even trying to start shit or talk shit in the first place. This is just what Jaye told me. I didn't hear anyone talk shit about anyone or see anyone else fuck someone up for talking or starting shit in the first place.

This use of repetition in sentence structures, and the recurrence of flashbacks, allows Catherine Lacey returned to the image of Elyria having a wildebeest inside of her often enough that it stops functioning as a metaphor and becomes a character, a variant of the self inside the self, and this then makes it clear that it is an interior landscape being explored, more than any journey through New Zealand. The husband the narrator left behind in New York is treated similarly, referred to as Husband, without a name of his own, a title that exists only in relation to her that she is nonetheless alienated from. The husband is also referred to, before his given name emerges spoken from his own mouth, as the professor, a role he filled in the life of Elyria's sister Ruby, genius and suicide, whose absence haunts Elyria. It is the idea of private loss that brought the two of them together, but the very fact that loss is private still leaves a gap large enough to initiate a journey around the world in search of some silence and peace.

Catherine Lacey also wrote a piece for Guernica earlier this year, about the idea of politeness, as it manifests in the state of Mississippi, where she grew up, as an unwillingness to talk about difficult subjects. This practice is unproductive and self-destructive, and makes it impossible to make real social progress. In this novel, her first, there is no personal growth on Elyria's part, no reconciliations made between any figures estranged. The road trip narrative defines the expectations, that the journey is more important than any destination, even as the psychological inquest provides the real action. The self-consciousness of the book, the sentences that offer contradictions inside themselves, will be related to by most any reader who seeks in reading the pleasure of self-recognition, even as the act of reading superimposes someone else's consciousness upon the brain.

Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey
FSG Originals
ISBN: 978-0374534493
256 pages