Monthly Archives: January 2016

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.