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.
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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.

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.

Review: Fludd, Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel is best known in recent years for her award winning novels Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012). Given the accolades showered upon Mantel’s fictional treatment of Tudor England, readers may be forgiven for overlooking one of her earlier novels, Fludd (1989.) Indeed, short, strange, tragicomic, and allegorical, Fludd could easily be dismissed as a curio, a relic predating Mantel’s ascent to literary stardom. But like the novel’s title character, Fludd conceals more than it lets on.

Fludd, Hilary Mantel.

Fludd, Hilary Mantel.

Mantel takes us to Fetherhoughton, a dour mill town in the north of England. Mid-twentieth century Fetherhoughton is a singularly miserable place, surrounded by moors on three sides, “the vast cemetery of [the villagers’] imaginations” (12). Father Angwin, Fetherhoughton’s spiritual leader, is a drunk. He is also an atheist. Agnes Dempsey, Father Angwin’s be-moled housekeeper, cares for the priest and keeps him to a semblance of order.

The “modern” bishop, upon visiting Fetherhoughton, insists that Father Angwin dispose of the statues of saints that line the church. Father Angwin is distraught: “[F]aith being dead, if we are not to become automatons, we must hold on to our superstitions as hard as we may” (27). The bishop will also send a curate to “assist”–that is, spy upon–Father Angwin. When the titular Fludd arrives in Fetherhoughton, he is both more and less than what he seems, and he sets into motion events that will change the lives of Father Angwin, Agnes, and Sister Philomena, among other Fetherhoughtonians.

Someone made fun of me for reading this edition, referring to it as a "unicorn book."

Someone made fun of me for reading this edition, referring to it as a “unicorn book.”

Mantel narrates Fludd with a diction that is distinctly English even to these benighted American ears. The “typography of Fetherhoughton may repay consideration,” Mantel tells us. “So may the manners, customs and dress of its inhabitants,” all of which, by the way, Mantel neatly skewers (11). That line is representative of a syntax and vocabulary that is singularly English. The propriety of Mantel’s writing lends it an archness that simultaneously softens and enhances the jibes she makes at her characters’ expense. Fetherhoughtonians, stand-ins for Mantel’s northern countrymen, refer to the second stories of their homes as “miyoopstairs” (13). Distraught by the suggestion of the vernacular Mass, Father Angwin comments of the townspeople, “I can well understand if you think Latin’s too good for them. But the problem I have here is their little grasp of the English language, do you see?” (10). Mantel employs this diction and tone to great comic effect throughout Fludd. She makes it plain that Fetherhoughtonians know nothing about their faith, and the (faux) politeness of her delivery demonstrates not only the absurdity of their practice, but also the absolute confidence with which they mangle their religion.

Some readers have complained that Fludd loses its momentum in its third act. It’s true that the story grows somber as Mantel shifts her perspective from Father Angwin’s battles with the bishop to Sister Philomena’s more existential struggle with life as a nun. In my opinion, Mantel’s decision to focus on Sister Philomena improves the story. It takes what would be a passing comedy and lends it greater depth. As Mantel makes clear before she begins the novel, Fludd is based on a sixteenth and seventeenth century alchemist, so the story must involve transformation. Some readers may find Sister Philomena dull–I did not–but, by becoming involved with her, Fludd himself is changed. Fludd confesses that he normally ignores women, but he is drawn to Philomena. Through Philomena, then, Mantel takes a deus ex machina-type character, the mysterious and unknowable Fludd, and illuminates his humanity. The novel is the better for it.

Fludd may not be a perfect or even a great novel, but it is a very good one. Some readers have commented on its subtle “gothic” tone, but that’s hardly right; indeed, if the gothic is present at all in Fludd, it is there for Mantel to mock. Fludd is something of a paradox. It is a comedy that knows the importance of the issues at which it pokes fun. Mantel is cynical, but she also believes in personal transformation. It is complicated, like Father Angwin, who, having given up on God, fights all the harder on behalf of “the dear old faith.” Fludd is of two minds, like many of us these days: “Everyone is where they should be; or we may collude in pretending so. And God’s in his heaven? Very bloody likely, Father Angwin thought” (157). Highly recommended.

February Recap

February 2015: I quit. Then I didn’t.

Tl;dr: I overreacted to the feeling that blogging was (is?) an obligation, and, more generally, “information overload.” It turns out my blogsbuddies have experienced similar feelings and have devised a variety of coping mechanisms. Lessons learned:

  1. I should be less dramatic.
  2. I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed at times by my digital experiences, which is heartening.

Am I back? Not quite. I’m figuring out how to manage my online experiences in a way (or ways) that minimizes anxiety and stress. Blogging is secondary to that. But I won’t rule out the possibility of continuing to blog if and when the muse strikes. (I quite admire From Couch to Moon’s schedule, consisting as it does of weekly posts, with occasional increased frequency, usually dependent upon awards schedules.)

I haven’t posted a review for some time, but I have been reading. I plan on writing longer reviews of Signal to Noise and Half the World, but I’m listing here some “flash reviews” of the books I’ve finished over the past few weeks.

Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts. I knew after reading Jack Glass that I needed to read something else by Adam Roberts. Yellow Blue Tibia begins in the USSR, 1947. Stalin calls leading Soviet sci-fi authors together to imagine an alien threat that might unite humanity. The project is canceled without explanation, and, decades later…the narrative imagined by Stalin’s writers appears to be coming true. I quite liked Yellow Blue Tibia, and would recommend it over Jack Glass. See Catherynne M. Valente’s blog for a very different reaction.

A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick

A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick

A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick. The first PKD I ever read! A dark vision of the future (really the 1990s, imagined in the 1970s) illuminated by PKD’s incandescent prose. PKD questions the nature of identity, and, ultimately, the realities in which we perceive ourselves, via Bob Arctor, an inveterate drug user who also happens to be an undercover police officer keeping tabs on…Bob Arctor. Arctor’s brain is fried by Substance D, and nothing is quite what it seems. Bottom line: I thoroughly enjoyed this PKD, and look forward to reading more in future.

The Gallows Curse, Karen Maitland. A historical mystery with just a dash of the supernatural. I enjoyed Maitland’s previous novels, A Company of Liars and The Owl Killers, both in the same vein, e.g., murder mysteries set in the darkness of thirteenth and fourteenth century England. There are some interesting elements here–for instance, the narrator is a mandrake (!!!)–but, overall, The Gallows Curse is dull. The plot, or plots, involving a villager falsely accused of murdering her child and a French plan to overthrow King John, didn’t quite add up, and the ending was unsatisfying. I don’t know anyone who enjoys this (sub)genre the way I do, but, if you do, you might want to steer clear of this entry.

Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregrine’s Children, Ransom Riggs. (Young adult.) The follow up to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar ChildrenHollow City is even darker in tone, with Jacob, Emma, and the other peculiars trekking across England and Wales, 1940, in search of a way to save Miss Peregrine. Riggs’s story is effective, if not particularly compelling, and moves forward at a steady clip. Although narrated by Jacob, a fifteen year old, it reads like someone twenty years older, an effect that is jarring and inauthentic. An entry in an ongoing series, Hollow City, predictably, involves a twist and a cliffhanger ending.

Signal to Noise and Half the World are both for the young adult crowd. Signal to Noise has received quite a lot of buzz, due perhaps to its unique setting, 1980s Mexico City. I found it a sweet if not particularly affecting story, and recommend Abercrombie’s book over it. Reviews forthcoming…when I get around to it.

Update/Forgot to mention: I’ve decided that, for every novel or short story collection I read by a male author, the next I read will be by a female author. (This doesn’t apply to nonfiction, which I handle differently.)