Admit it, lovers: There are days when you awake and want to blow up your relationship. Perhaps things are mildly bad, or perhaps they are horrible, or perhaps there’s nothing for any reasonable human to complain about, but anyhow, something has happened, something has shifted, and in that moment of waking, were you to follow your whims, they would spirit you away to another bed, another city, another life. Sometimes this fantasy swoops in only for a quick spot of tea. Other times it arrives loaded with baggage and settles in for a good long visit, long enough that your discontentedness grows, and you begin acting strangely. You cheat. You golf, or gamble, or take to drink. You eat way too much chocolate. You become addicted to Zumba. At some point this behavior becomes protracted, embarrassing, unhealthy, and you realize it’s time to leave. You inform your other half, who may or may not have seen it coming. Belongings are packed. Excuses are made. “It’s not you, it’s me.”
This, at least, is the polite way of departure. Then there is the way of Elyria, the young woman at the center of Catherine Lacey’s impressive first novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing, who takes the goodbye part of things to an extreme: She buys herself a ticket from New York to New Zealand and vanishes without a word to anyone, including her husband. No phone call. No email. No Post-It.
But why? What has moved this woman with the stable Manhattan lifestyle—job writing for a soap opera, math professor husband, apartment on the Upper West Side—to live out of a backpack, sleep in sheds, and beg rides from strangers, to become a “human non sequitur—senseless and misplaced”?
At first Elyria’s destination, if not her motivation, is clear: the farm of Werner, a poet she met at a reading she was strong-armed into attending in New York, who after a brief exchange left her with his address scrawled on a scrap of paper. Though Elyria doesn’t like poetry, something about Werner gives her “an odd comfort”; he writes about loneliness, possesses an infectious confidence, has offered her a room of her own. Once arrived at Werner’s farm, Elyria is content with her “new, tiny life of just a few words and few people.” As for Werner, he is intrigued until he isn’t, deciding eventually that Elyria is too sad to bear. Soon she is deposited at the side of the road, alone with herself, nowhere to go.
And so, thumb out, Elyria continues to traverse the country, putting herself at the mercy of the elements and passing drivers, toiling at menial work in exchange for lodging, tolerating company but not courting closeness. Other characters—drawn by Lacey in quick, vivid sketches—are flashes on the canvas, as is the landscape, which Elyria, so stuck in the mire of her own thoughts, mostly ignores. As she wanders, her mind whorls and spills, but in Lacey’s hands these are controlled spills: She guides us seamlessly from present to past, revealing piece by piece the grievances and wounds that impelled Elyria toward flight.
We learn of the alcoholic mother and the child-prodigy sister—Korean, adopted, dead of suicide by age 22. We learn of the husband who commits savage acts in his sleep and believes Elyria has come unhinged—“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.” We learn that back home, Elyria lived under the crushing expectation that she ought to be a specific kind of woman: less complex, less combative, less than fully herself. We learn that her marriage had become a confusion of anger and disillusionment, and that before long she was engaging in “arguments about the way we argue” with her husband during which she began “thinking about stabbing myself in the face—not actually considering stabbing myself in the face, but thinking that it would be a physical expression of how I felt.”
Have I mentioned that this book is a comedy?