Sunday, June 18, 2017

Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey

Some people make us feel more human and some people make us feel less human  and this is a fact as much as gravity is a fact and maybe there are ways to prove it, but the proof of it matters less than the existence of it--how a stranger can show up and look at you and make you make more sense to yourself and the world, even if that sense is extremely fragile and only comes around occasionally and is prone to wander or fade--what matters is that sometimes sense is made between two people and I don't know if it's random or there is any kind of order to it, what combinations of people work the best and why and how do we find these people and how do we keep these people around, and I don't know if it's chaos or not chaos but it feels like chaos to me so I suppose it is. 
We meet Elyria, the narrator of Nobody is Ever Missing on the side of the road in New Zealand where she is hitchhiking her way to the farm of an author she has met only once. It slowly becomes clear that Elyria is in the middle of a long overdue unraveling and her inner monologue vacillates between rambling spirals and flashes of clarity. The book shifts between flashbacks to the traumas that led her here--her sister's suicide, the slow death of her marriage--and her slow and erratic progress through New Zealand. She has left her husband, job, and family behind without warning--simply walking out of the door and onto a plane, and her choices throughout feel just as abrupt and illogical as that first one. She wanders deeper and deeper into her own mind as the book progresses and becomes harder and harder to follow both literally and figuratively.

Elyria's slow fall into mental illness feels eerily possible. Where she ends up--lost, alone, and broke on the other side of the planet--seems totally out of reach and alien, but the steps that get her there are terrifyingly small. The slow accumulation of crazy is something that I always feel like could be just around the corner, and Lacey does a nice job of capturing those minute shifts that get us there. Elyria's moments of more delirious stream of consciousness have just the right balance of thoughts you've had with thoughts you like to think you'd never have that you wonder just how far off you really are. Her sentences trip into long, run-on paragraphs with just enough to ground you but plenty to knock you off your guard.

The glimpses into her life before--both the tragic and the mundane moments--are written with much more clarity, much more stability, but her isolation and sadness still lurk below the surface. Some of these, especially those describing her relationship with her husband, are especially beautiful and sad:
His oldest friends always said he looked the same as he had at college graduation but I knew his face closely enough to know that wasn't true--I knew I had missed so many delicate years of life and the man I had married was the hard remainder; I had missed years of innocent longing and late nights and odd jobs and girlfriends who were now mothers of someone else's children. I had missed wrinkleless eyes and his hair before the grey crept in and his mouth before it had said I love you to other people, shadowy other women I never knew, would never know. All those selves my husband practiced in the decade before me felt unfair because my past didn't have any of those secret selves because everyone's childhood and adolescence are more or less the same, dear struggle, and my husband had seen me change from an old child to a young adult and I didn't have a past like he did--I didn't have a smoother version of me tucked away in other people's memories. 
I loved this passage. I love the intimacy of "tucked away" at the end, the idea that all the iterations of our former selves are being carried around in the pockets of friends and lovers and parents. I remember so well  The contrast between these moments and her spirals of anxiety and paranoia make her fall that much more tragic and frustrating.

I read this book in a day. The pages flew by; usually I hate paragraph long stream of consciousness sentences, but here they had a movement, a rhythm, and a purpose that made them manageable. I was often very frustrated with Elyria; she seems simultaneously so capable of insight and so oblivious to her effect on others that I wanted to shake her, but that's kind of the point. Her husband infuriated me; we don't get his side of the story, but even without it, he seems callous and uncaring in his dismissal of her even when it is clear that she is in the midst of a breakdown. She isn't a particularly reliable narrator so there may be entire chapters in their relationship that have gone missing, but I was still shocked at how little he seemed willing to care for her.

There is a lot to unhouse you here, but the thing that has stuck with me, even afterward, is how seamlessly a person can slip from rational to irrational, how razor thin the edge is between having crazy thoughts and being a crazy person. Elyria glides too effortlessly between the two, and that, more than anything, crawled under my skin and sat there.

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