Cover Nobody is Ever Missing Catherine Lacey

Review: Nobody is Ever Missing, Catherine Lacey

Nobody is Ever Missing: The Blogger Wishes to Say a Word

Inevitably, there are certain books I don’t feel up to the task of reviewing. Consider, for instance, Nobody is Ever Missing, Catherine Lacey’s 2014 debut. At the time of this writing, I am still scratching my head. Am I perhaps too dense to grasp the depth of Lacey’s prose? Or is this a case of smoke and mirrors, a simulacrum of profundity wrapped up in literary packaging? Do I have a bad case of lice? The answer to at least one of these questions is a resounding “yes!”

At least one Goodreads user placed Nobody is Ever Missing on a list entitled 2014 Hipster Books and Literary Fiction. This disturbs me for two reasons. First, “hipsters” are a species of human I don’t quite understand. They operate at a level of irony that eludes me. Confronted with their irony, I am like a second dimension being vainly attempting to imagine what life in 3D might be like. Second, in reading Nobody is Ever Missing, did I become a hipster without having realized it? Now that would be ironic. Help me, my pants are shrinking.

Nobody is Ever Missing (2014)

I don’t feel the need to recapitulate the plot of Nobody is Ever Missing, not that there’s much of one; this is a character study. In any case, Raging Biblio-Holism relates the essentials in a better review than I could hope to write. (It’s the review that convinced me to read the book.)

Cover Nobody is Ever Missing Catherine Lacey

Nobody is Ever Missing, Catherine Lacey

Elyria, a soap opera writer in her late twenties, unexpectedly leaves NYC for New Zealand. She is driven by what society so cavalierly calls “inner demons”; she is lured by the vague promise of shelter from a semi-famous poet recluse. She undertakes her trip without telling anyone, even her husband.

What’s most interesting (to me) about Elyria’s decision is that it is the inverse of the “adventure” narrative with which we are all so familiar: A person bravely decides to throw caution to the wind and pursue his or her dream of “adventure” in a foreign land, thus finding him- or herself and personal fulfillment. (Eat, Pray, Love, etc.)

Elyria’s story is not like that. Elyria is motivated not by a desire to escape routine but to escape herself, the incessant accrual of thought and emotion, for which an individual seems to have a maximum capacity but, really, to which there is no end. She identifies this part of herself as her “wildebeest,” a certain wildness that bucks against societal constraint and expectation, for instance, those imposed upon her by her husband. In traveling to the other side of the world she is indulging this part of herself not so much because she wants to, but because she must. (One of the Goodreads reviews I note above sniffed at the “mechanics” of using a wildebeest as a metaphor for mental illness. I suspect readers familiar with mental illness will be more forgiving.)

Lacey delivers Elyria’s story as a first person stream of consciousness narrative. As the story progresses, Elyria’s delivery becomes more abstract, more repetitive, more fragmented. Some readers might dismiss prose of this sort of a literary (“hipster?”) conceit, but, even when off-putting (as it at times is), it’s quite well done. I recognized in Elyria’s narrative patterns with which I am familiar. Lacey employs some startling turns of phrase. for instance, “person-shaped hole,” which Elyria uses to describe her husband.

Nobody is Ever Missing is not for everyone. Lacey’s narrative quirks, deliberately employed here to great effect, will put off readers who appreciate more straightforward prose. Nor is this a “feel good” story; be prepared to get some sunshine afterward. But for readers who appreciate truth delivered in fiction, Nobody is Ever Missing will prove especially rewarding, and is highly recommended.

Similar books:

This is tough, because I tend to review “speculative fiction,” not “literary fiction.” I can’t refer you to reviews, but I’m able to recommend:

  • Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, which, although longer and odder, delivers some equally harsh truths with striking language.
  • The Night Gwen Stacey Died by Sarah Brunialso about a young(er) woman struggling to find her place in the world. Although less powerful than Nobody is Ever MissingThe Night Gwen Stacey Died is less bleak, and it has the added bonus of employing comic mythology.
  • If you really want to get inside the head of someone who’s experienced mental illness, try An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, by psychologist and author Kay Redfield Jamison. Mini-review about halfway down the page here.
Cover Treasure of Sainte Foy MacDonald Harris

Review: The Treasure of Sainte Foy, MacDonald Harris

Who was MacDonald Harris?

Who was MacDonald Harris? I previously stated that, until recently, I didn’t know. It was only due to the intervention of Michael Chabon–via a remembrance of Harris published in The New York Times, not by, like, a chat while we waited in line at the grocery story–that I heard of Harris at all. But, boy, am I glad I did. I suspect that The Treasure of Sainte Foy (1980) will be the first of many Harris novels I consume. *assumes book plow position*

The Treasure of Sainte Foy (1980)

If you look up The Treasure of Sainte Foy on Goodreads, of which many of my readers–“many” being a relative term when applied to three people–are members, you’ll see that it has an average rating of 2.85 stars. (Oh, to be even 85th of a star! But I digress.) I suspect that The Treasure of Sainte Foy is so poorly rated because it is such a deceptive novel. Its dust jacket copy describes it as a “thriller,” which in 1980 must have meant something different than it does today. We’ll call it a “heist novel,” but even that is misleading. Is it literature posing as crime fiction, or vice versa? Can a reader always make a meaningful distinction between the two?

Cover Treasure of Sainte Foy MacDonald Harris

Treasure of Sainte Foy, MacDonald Harris

The Treasure of Sainte Foy nominally tells the story of some amateur criminals’ attempt to rob a French village church of the book’s titular wealth. Patrick, a failed art historian, is the outfit’s “recon” man. He travels to Conques to survey the church’s security and the layout of the village. Posing as an art historian is excellent cover: It provides a ready explanation for Patrick’s interest in the treasure and his habit of taking photographs. Despite a certain steadfastness of habit, Patrick meets a woman, as he must; it is essentially dictated by the structure of stories such as this. Marie-Agne is a docent at the church, and her political leanings–she is something of a Languedoc populist–make her a likely ally in Patrick’s mission. It goes without saying that the heist does not go according to plan.

The Treasure of Sainte Foy is about the ways in which we deceive ourselves, and others, through the narratives we create. Patrick is a perfect example. Denied tenure, Patrick rejects the “bourgeois” lifestyle to which he otherwise would have committed himself, but only in petty ways. He foregoes underwear and socks. Despite a fear of colds, Patrick refuses to carry the vitamins he believes ward off sickness, choosing instead to “lose” a few vitamins in the lining of his luggage, to be conveniently “discovered” at need. So it is with all the novel’s characters, with the exception of Marie-Agne, who remains something of an ironic enigma. (Early on there is a particularly well-done scene between Anstruc, the local constable, and Patrick, in which Anstruc warns Patrick not to rob the church without ever directly saying so.)

I suspect that the negative reaction to The Treasure of Sainte Foy is due to how understated it is. The first chapter is a present tense description of Patrick’s trip from his Toulouse flat to Conques. Patrick loads and unloads the elevator in his building. Readers accustomed to immediate action might be put off, but this is all very well done. Harris is embodying the old writers’ saw, “show, don’t tell.” By showing the reader Patrick’s behavior as he loads the elevator, Harris reveals a wealth of information about Patrick’s character, and, ultimately, the direction of the story. That Harris does it so simply and with so few words is itself a deception–it is a testament to his mastery of the craft of writing.

I wouldn’t say that The Treasure of Sainte Foy is a great book. It certainly isn’t a “classic.” But it is so well done, so minutely crafted, that it deserves to be read. Highly recommended for patient readers willing to step outside of “genre fiction.”

“Today” I “use” a lot of “quotes.”

Similar books:

  • Nearly anything by Michael ChabonI suppose. (I read The Treasure of Sainte Foy immediately after finishing Wonder Boys.) Different styles, but Chabon was Harris’s student.
  • For a similarly understated but more apocalyptic take on the crime novel, see The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters. 
  • If you like evocations of the European countryside, with a more supernatural bent, consider The String Diaries by Stephen Loyd Jones.

Prose Autopsy

Hi, everybody.

I'm Dr. Nick.

I’m Dr. Nick.

Long time, no blogsy. I have unpredictably returned for one of my periodic updates. You lucky sonsabitches.

I’m here today to belabor the writing of MacDonald Harris. “Who is MacDonald Harris?” you ask. MacDonald Harris is Donald Heiney? “What?” you say, “That’s not at all helpful.” I know. I’m not trying to be helpful. I’m like a small boy, my head cocked to the side, one eye squinted, poking a dead animal with a stick; that is to say, I am observing your reaction distantly and with just a hint of disgust.

MacDonald Harris–also known as Donald Heiney–was an author, of whom I had never heard either until Michael Chabon wrote about him in The New York Times. Upon reading Chabon’s piece, I immediately left my desk–I was at work–and walked to the used bookstore down the street, where I searched in vain for The Balloonist, considered one of Harris’s best novels. I instead chanced upon The Treasure of Sainte Foy, which I reluctantly purchased, mostly because buying a book is better than buying no book at all.

The Treasure of Sainte Foy, MacDonald Harris

The Treasure of Sainte Foy, MacDonald Harris

I lately began reading The Treasure of Sainte Foy and happened upon a paragraph I found so delightful that I will here do violence upon it. I’m doing this for myself, not for you, so, if you’re bored, I won’t be offended if you click away now. Here is the paragraph:

He stops the car for a moment to look. He still has plenty of time. In the afternoon sunlight the peach-colored stones of the town and church glow richly. The town shines out as thought it were golden–a treasure scattered for some unknown reason on the rocky and arid slopes of these hills. There is almost no sound. He can hear the river purling far below him, and a distant metallic clunk from across the valley, perhaps a goat bell. When this town was built, he thinks, Paris was only a village. A shadow creeps across the valley toward the town. In a few minutes it will reach the base of the church. Patrick starts the car again and continues down the road, which descends sharply into the ravine and then turns in a switchback toward the river.

A straightforward paragraph, non? Read it again! Now I will elaborate:

He stops the car for a moment to look. He still has plenty of time. In the afternoon sunlight the peach-colored stones of the town and church glow richly. The town shines out as thought it were golden–a treasure scattered for some unknown reason on the rocky and arid slopes of these hills. There is almost no sound. He can hear the river purling far below him, and a distant metallic clunk from across the valley, perhaps a goat bell. When this town was built, he thinks, Paris was only a village. A shadow creeps across the valley toward the town. In a few minutes it will reach the base of the church. Patrick starts the car again and continues down the road, which descends sharply into the ravine and then turns in a switchback toward the river.

Are you ready? Keep in mind that I not a student of literature. I am a not-very-gifted amateur. But if I am not an expert in the English language, I am perhaps better informed in regards to what I like and don’t, and what I think.

  1. “Peach-colored stones.” I find this phrase surprising for two reasons. First, I’ve never heard stones described this way, nor have I seen stones so hued, but I’ve no reason to doubt that they exist. I also enjoy the contrast in texture: “peach” and “stone.”
  2. “Peach-colored” / “glow” / “shines out” / “golden.” There’s a lot of golden glowing going on here. I am pleased. Consider this in light of the creeping shadow mentioned later. (“In light”–ha!)
  3. “There is almost no sound.” But there is sound: the soft purling of the river, contrasted with the “metallic clunk” of the goat bell. “Soft” and “hard” sounds.
  4. “When this town was built…Paris was only a village. A shadow creeps across the village toward the town. In a few minutes it will reach the base of the church.” This is very subtle foreshadowing. Harris evokes history, the passage of time (“When this town was built…”), culminating here and now, as Patrick takes in the scene. Likewise, a shadow creeps across the valley, ending at the church. It just so happens that Patrick is on his way to visit another church. This seems to bode poorly for Patrick.

There you have it. This is what I have been up to. I have gone in one year from active book blogging to sitting in my darkened apartment, reading over and over again a single paragraph. No doubt I will narrow my vision down to one word and finally one letter, staring at a “q” or an “j” as if I might divine in it the secrets of the cosmos. I will remain oblivious to everything else; family will discover me malnourished and my pants befouled, surrounded by strips of paper I’ve cut from all my books.

I haven’t the cognitive “bandwidth” (a usage I hate but resort to reflexively; it’s commonly employed in corporations these days) to blog routinely, but anticipate at minimum a summary similar to my last post. I do miss my blogger friends and hope to “stop by” to say hello over the next few weeks. Until then–adieu.

Flash Reviews: The Long, Strange Summer of Books, Brains and Beer

Once upon a time, I was a book blogger. I read books. I wrote about what I read. I read about what other book bloggers read. And I argued with my fellows about books. Mostly with From Couch to Moon. Because she sups upon the tears of her vanquished foes. Woe unto you, unsuspecting Heinlein fan, for From Couch to Moon is become death, destroyer of patriarchy.

I lost my momentum earlier this year. Life got in the way, as life does. Rare is the book blogger who remains steadfast in his or her dedication to the craft. Consider Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased. Not only has he been blogging for four years, but he also employs in his blog name the Oxford comma and an ampersand. Pleased with his grammatical choices, Chris reads pulps paperbacks whilst sitting upon the graveyard of American industry.

If one were to form an impression of my year’s reading based on my entries here, one might assume that I have given up on reading altogether, that I am even now dressed only in my skivvies, eating Lucky Charms out of a mixing bowl, and staring into the middle distance, a victim of la cafard. Quote Philip Caputo:

“…the battalion began to suffer from a spiritual disease called la cafard by the French soldiers when they were in Indochina. Its symptoms were occasional fits of depression combined with an inconquerable fatigue that made the simplest tasks, like shaving or cleaning a rifle, seem enormous.”

Or blogging. So many French soldiers gave up on their blogs while in Indochina. A real tragedy for social media.

But lo! I have been not been idle. No, indeed, I have been reading as ever. Permit me to share with you here some of the books I read over the course of the past few months. (This may or may not be a prelude to a return to active blogging.)

Fiction

The Waterworks, E. L. Doctorow

I read this after learning via a New York Times article that it’s one of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s favorite books. Solid historical fiction, but I wasn’t terribly impressed. If you’re looking to try Doctorow, stick with his masterpiece, Ragtime.

The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, Okla Elliott

This high-concept dystopian novel has received a lot of attention. I’m sorry to report to you that it’s bloated and its conceits a bit overdone.

Alexander Tuvim: Not his real name!

Aleksandr Tuvim: Not his real name!

Wayward, Blake Crouch

Pines, Blake Crouch

The Last Town, Blake Crouch

Make no mistake: Black Crouch is by no means a writer of literary fiction. In the epigraph to Wayward, Crouch quotes Michael Crichton–an apt comparison. But let’s be honest; Crichton has his place. Sometimes you want candy, and that’s what Crouch gives you. And he’s really good at it. Crouch’s books may not be terribly deep, but they’re compulsively readable.

Ack-Ack Macaque, Gareth L. Powell

Great concept, poor execution. I preferred the original short story. But given its popularity, you owe it to yourself to give it a try.

Nonfiction

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, Jon Krakauer

How has it been 11 years? As always, Krakauer takes something worthy of an article and pads it into book-length. It held my attention, though.

How to Read, Eckhard Gerdes

No.

The Fellowship: Literary Lives of the Inklings: J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski

I was so looking forward to this and am sad to report that I was a bit let down. A solid introduction to the Inklings, but nothing really new here, and I feel like the Zaleskis strained at times to make palatable to the modern reader the moral failings of Tolkien et al. (Look, people can be jerks and still do great things.)

The History of Last Night’s Dream: Discovering the Hidden Path to the Soul, Rodger Kamenetz

Why do I do this to myself? No. Just no.

Stalking Elijah: Adventures with Today’s Jewish Mystical Masters, Rodger Kamenetz

Do you speak Jewish? No? Then skip this one.

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Kay Redfield Jamison

People love this book. Love it. Jamison is significant because she was open about mental health at a time when it wasn’t popular to do so–and it’s still a very important issue. Jamison is a skilled writer, but her prose is sometimes overwrought.

Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son, Peter Manseau

Eh. Didn’t need to be a book. Casual readers will find themselves bored to tears by Manseau’s detailed history of the mid-twentieth century American Catholic church.

One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi, Alan Lew

The late Alan Lew was a really interesting guy as well as a fantastic writer. Lew devotes most of One God Clapping to the decades he spent as a devotee of Zen Buddhism. Despite Lew’s inclinations–Buddhist, Jewish–there’s fodder here for anyone who considers themselves a seeker.

American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest, Hannah Nordhaus

An entertaining if forgettable diversion into one American family’s history.

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, Ari Shavit

I highly recommend My Promised Land to anyone interested in understanding the Palestinian-Israeli impasse. Shavit, a Haaretz journalist, identifies defining moments in each decade of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, reporting with nuance and sympathy the motivations of Palestinians and Israelis. He also employs some truly outstanding turns of phrase, for instance, “For one long moment, he who is their Nebuchadnezzar wishes to be their Jeremiah.”

Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, Bart D. Ehrman

Bart Ehrman is the New Testament scholar (and avowed agnostic) you never knew you wanted to read. Don’t start with this one, though, which is in part a recapitulation of his other popular works.

A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, Deborah Baker

A (sadly) somewhat dull travelogue of Allen Ginsberg’s 1962 trip to India, although it does include a truly excellent exchange between poet and student of Zen Gary Snyder and his wife, Joanne Kyger. I paraphrase: Gary: “Don’t you want to study Zen and learn to obliterate the ego?” Joanne: “What! After all the time it took to get one?!”

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman

An examination of the collision of “traditional” Laotian culture with that of modern American medicine. The Laotians and their doctors not only speak different languages; they nearly exist in different worlds. The clinicians treat what they understand is a biological illness but what is, for the Laotians, a spiritual malady–and, perhaps, a gift. Also a pocket history of the Laotian people. Good stuff, this, but you need a strong attention span.

The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India, Rodger Kamenetz

It’s good enough, but unless you’re Jewish or Buddhist, you don’t need to read this one.

God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer, Bart D. Ehrman

I confess that I’m an Ehrman fan, indeed, a partisan, if you will. (He has his detractors both within and outside of the Academy.) The logic Ehrman employs in his examination of theodicy–the philosophical reconciliation of human suffering with the existence of God–is reductionist but compelling. Lest you fear that God’s Problem might be highfalutin, Ehrman writes in a clear and entertaining style fit for the layman. Probably among the best places to start for an introduction to Ehrman’s thought.

That's me in the corner.

That’s me in the corner.

And? What next, you may ask? Shall I return to blogging? I’m not certain, but I admit that I’m tentatively leaning toward “yes,” with the caveat that my activity will appear much reduced compared to my previous efforts. I suspect that, were I to begin writing reviews now, I would schedule them to begin posting in late September or October, and on a weekly frequency. I’ve missed the conversation in which my blogging comrades and I once engaged. (Except for that with From Couch to Moon, she’s scary.) So a return seems likely, if not inevitable.

A Brief Commentary on the Fallacy of Anthropocentrism

A certain species of thinker observes the wickedness of the world and says in response to it, “God is sadistic.” How can it be otherwise in a world in which babies are murdered? This thinker is perhaps unwittingly operating according to the assumption of traditional Judeo-Christian concepts of God. Indeed, without knowing it, he or she is practicing theodicy, the philosophical accommodation of suffering to the existence of God. “If God is all powerful, why doesn’t He feed the poor? God must want us to suffer.”

There are various problems with the “theodicist” (note: not a word) approach, notably its starting point, that God, as humanity has traditionally conceived it, must be an all powerful being that intervenes in human history. The theodicist probably continues to think of God as male, and likely assigns human traits to Him. The theodicist is unaware of “recent” developments in theology, recent here meaning the last two centuries, for instance, Buber’s relational God or, more currently, process theology. Some theodicists may be obliquely advocating atheism, e.g., “You can’t reconcile a loving God with human suffering, therefore there must be no God.” Aside from being binary and reductionist, among other shortfalls, this argument continues to place human suffering at the center of existence.

A more subtle thinker moves several steps beyond crude theodicy. He or she takes in the scope and grandeur of the universe, approximates a sense of humanity’s insignificance, and says, “The horror is not that God is malicious, since there is no God. No, the horror is that the universe is indifferent to humanity.” This thinker gets closer to the truth, but still goes awry. He or she continues to assign to the universe human traits. We might term this pantheism (equating the universe with God) or panentheism (the “interpenetration” of the universe and the Divine). But this thinker assumes that the universe has a moral position in regards to humanity.

"The light's winning." (True Detective, Season 1.)

“The light’s winning.” (True Detective, Season 1.)

All of which is understandable. It is human, so human, the essence of humanity, to place itself at the center of the narrative of reality. As the late David Foster Wallace pointed out during the 2005 commencement speech he delivered at Kenyon College:

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.

In other words: ME! And at the species level: US! Voltaire is said to have remarked that “If God did not exist, we would have to invent him.” For our times, we might rephrase it, “If we weren’t certain that we were the center of the universe, we would have to convince ourselves of it.” At its most basic level, it is a matter of individual and communal survival.

But.

The reality is that even the pantheists and panentheists are wrong. They are wrong because, even as they make the divine more abstract, they still assign to it human motives, or, if they are being careful, interpreting it using human perception, which is, of course, their only mechanism for doing so. They forget that the universe simply is. The universe is not divine, nor is it interpenetrated with the divine, because there is no divinity. Divinity is a human value judgment that thinkers apply to the universe.

The horror is not that God is sadistic. The horror is not that the universe is indifferent to us. No, the horror is that the universe lacks the capacity for indifference. The horror is that we are all alone, on this rock, floating in space, and that for all our powers of discernment, for all our science, we are gropers in the dark.