Ah, another novel written by a cynical female narrator undone by grief, actively burning down her life. My happy place. Unreliable narrator? Check. Writing/speaking as if to save herself, heal herself and integrate her grief somehow? Check.
Nobody Is Ever Missing is an astonishing first novel, with an astonishing voice and astonishing, heart stopping lines like this: ‘… not a thing to say in daylight’ (p. 157).
This is a novel about loss and grief, the tenuousness of identity and the necessity of it. A novel about the loss of identity and grief of that loss.
Writing in first person has so many advantages for getting meaning across. Even an unreliable slightly unhinged narrator is able to share her thought processes and potentially elicit some sympathy from the reader. I chose third person for my folio’s narration but judiciously slip into close third when I need to for an intended effect. I wonder if third person takes a bit more skill and is slightly more satisfying as a reader. The reader needs to work harder to interpret, and the writer needs to work harder to elicit sympathy and the desire to interpret from the reader. This is a contentious, controversial issue to be sure. Is first or third more effective? Another question with no answer, and in any case, it’s lovely to have a choice. And they serve different purposes.
This is an innovative novel in its form. There is a seething undercurrent of tension but no real discernible rising action apart from our protagonist Elyria not knowing where she is going or what she wants. Elyria is similar to Poppy, the protagonist in my folio, in that she doesn’t know what she wants, and needs other people to tell her. Like this: ‘… inside there was a wall tacked with flyers, one said Bakers Needed, and another said Farmhands Needed, and there were other needs, needs I either couldn’t meet or didn’t want to meet, but one just said Live on Waiheke Island, Live in Paradise! and I liked that it didn’t ask anything of me, just told me what to do, emphatically’ (p. 165). It becomes clearer that she wants a simple life with undemanding forms of connection. Perhaps a stingray stinging her is the climax. Decisions need to be made at this point: she has overstayed her visa and needs to be deported back to the USA. Before this happened, Elyria was indeterminately drifting. Which begs the question – do things need to happen, do characters need to make choices in order to make a piece of creative writing good and to sustain reader interest? It’s what I’ve been told and advised over and over again during this course.
Elyria is not likeable, but she’s relatable. And as my convenor William Brandt has advised me, likeability and relatability aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but it doesn’t necessarily matter if they are. Relatability trumps likeability … for reader interest? To keep the pages turning? I keep turning the pages.
I love a dark novel, but two-thirds of the way through the novel, being in Elyria’s head is beginning to feel relentlessly wretched. This shows the power and effectiveness but also possibly a weakness of the first person narrative choice? I am aching for redemption, for a reprieve. I do care about what happens to Elyria, and I want to know where the book is going. I want to know if Catherine Lacey knows or is being compelled, pulled, guided. So I keep turning the pages.
In this novel we are left with no hope or possibility. There is no reconciliation with the narrator’s estranged husband, no possibility of them understanding one another. The last scene is a neurotic monologue supposedly meant to convey that our narrator is still experiencing her prolonged nervous breakdown.
This book left me with an anxious, uneasy feeling. It is a powerful book with an arguably powerful ending, intended to reflect ontological reality: uncertainty, continual flux, nothing steady to hold onto, a shaking universe. But it is not the ending I desire as a reader. The other books I have cited thus far in this journal, with female protagonists who burn down their lives to see what remains, still end on a note of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel. I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins ends with our protagonist taking care of her daughter in a desert landscape, the land of her forefathers, living spiritually close to her family. The last two lines of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You? are, ‘And as I write you this message I’m very happy. All my love.’ The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson ends with the thought that we are on this earth ‘… who knows for how long, ablaze with our care.’ Darkness and light. I need that as a reader, and it is something I carefully considered and crafted when writing the ending for my own folio.
Life ultimately ends in death, though, doesn’t it? Lucia Berlin’s short stories often end in a minor key, in ashes.
Maybe Catherine Lacey is onto something.