The Ache for the Hero's Journey; A Semi-Review of Catherine Lacey's Nobody is Ever Missing
by Mari A. Gomez
I first read Catherine Lacey’s work in a short story published in Harper’s magazine. I was intrigued to find out that she has been alive precisely as long as I have been alive. Presumably we have a lot in common, except she's a far better writer of course. She has an MFA. She is a wretched 'millenial.' She was about fifteen when 9/11 happened, caught the tail end of MTV actually playing music videos, and probably owned a flip phone in her late teens.
Catherine Lacey's story Because You Have To, tells of a young woman in the aftermath of what appears to be a separation. Lacey captures something very familiar in the interior monologue of the character: a suffering yet slightly detached cynical narration which picks up the ironies and absurdities of its own story as it’s laying it out, like someone playing solitaire and narrating it, fascinated and aware of the inherently sad but comedic nature of it all. The character is kind of nutty and it was a refreshing tone for a story coming from a young person.
I wondered what this writing would feel like in long form; I picked up Nobody is Ever Missing, Lacey’s debut novel. Now I know one cannot judge too harshly on such a thing, but boy did it disappoint. There is a biting quality to the narration and there is humor there, hidden within the odd observations and vacillations, but mostly the novel is like those terrible days that drag on while you fail to get anything accomplished. You know those days when you can't focus on one thing and you sort of meander through the passing minutes with no direction. The novel deals with a late twenty-something that decides to leave everything behind, including her home and husband, to wander around in New Zealand. The novel follows her journey, which is largely portrayed through internal monologue, often childish, with only a dim view of the outside world.
The problem begins precisely with the “wandering.” It is the curse of the millenial. This is no hero's journey. In fact, it feels like precisely the opposite. A hero is prompted to action by necessity or has a call for adventure in order to discover/learn something about themselves. It’s not clear what the narrator is looking for in New Zealand. In the novel, she simply leaves for no stated purpose other than she cannot fit in her life anymore and she is miserable in that undefinable disoriented kind of a way. As the saying goes, "no matter where you go, there you are." And there she was, the narrator, lost in New Zealand and in her life because there is no core to her.
The novel suggests the underlying reason for this disorientation is some kind of delayed and complex grief over the suicide of her adopted sister. Yet the pain of the suicide never truly feels real or immediate to the narrator; rather, the suicide is always an event that occurred to her, not a tragedy to be unpacked or reckoned with or reasoned. So she drags around misery and despair to no good consequence. She doesn’t seem to be trying to comprehend or make anything better and in the end of the novel there is no further understanding of that tragic event that brings any hope or insight of the human condition.
The crux of the matter is that in her journey she doesn’t learn anything about herself or the world. The entire journey is meaningless; it’s a story carried solely on the cleverness of the writing. There are no layers, no transformations; the whole novel is a terrible version of the dark night of the soul, and it just lingers there in the abyss, as if it was a hip place to be.
A journey novel should be more than simply someone going somewhere for the hell of it. Lacey's narrator here doesn’t transcend. There are no interesting characters, no archetypes, no sacrifice, no magic; the journey is devoid of meaning.
I’m not so much interested in the fact that Catherine Lacey wrote a bad first novel. Somehow the fact that she's my age makes me concerned that this is the kind of thinking that prevails the millenial mind. Does it say something about people of our generation that have MFA’s and spend years in writing workshops reading over meaningless sentences that go nowhere? Does it say something about the self-centerdness of millenials and how they've gotten stuck in a rut?
What does this novel teach the reader other than aimless wondering will make you crazy? That's an important message I suppose, but it doesn't seem that's what she was aiming for. Where is the sacrifice that leads to truth? Where are the philosophical implications? Where is the resilience of the human spirit? She finds no faith or hope. Instead, the novel ends with her returning home as a crazy person, detached and alone-as she should be, given her behavior.
At one point in her travels she is picked up by the authorities in New Zealand as they identify her as a danger to herself or others. The narrator thinks, after being interrogated by the doctor,
“I would rather be: a string-bean plant or a possum who just wanted to crawl and eat, instead of being a person who can’t seem to find a a way to comfortably live or be in this world, but I didn’t want to find a way out of this life or into some other life. I didn’t want to lust after anything. I didn’t want to love anything. I was not a person but just some evidence of myself.”
Such a passage reveals the narrator’s spiritual void and solipsism. She is not only incapable of love, but admits wanting no part of it. She's in a state of soulless inertia, the kind that renders people incapable of taking rightful and virtuous action in their own life. She has given up. She is already dead. This is a terribly depressing picture of people my age. The character leaves her husband in a cruel careless way and while she reflects on it occasionally, never really seems to consider the kind of suffering she inflicted. I am sick of indecision and this type of direction-less wandering.
The reviews about the book are just as telling. One writer says of the novel, “.. Lacey’s virtuosic debut is a gutsy lyric meditation on identity, love, transformation, and what it means to be free.”
Except there was no profound transformation. And no, this is NOT what it means to be free. This is the opposite of freedom, or perhaps what happens when people are free but have no path, no moral backbone, no yearning or respect for life and they turn to dust in their twenties. True liberty comes with responsibility and virtue and it requires sacrifice and awareness and compassion. The meaning of freedom is not aimless wandering. That is a terrible way to live and a very dangerous message.
The narrator lacks maturity and stability. She acknowledges as much several times in the novel. Yet, she seems to surrender to this and does not fight back. She accepts that she is not grown up and yet does nothing to solve it. Instead, she just runs off. She is a weak and intolerable character who never sacrifices anything.
This feels like someone writing cool sentences about being confused about life. That’s all fine, except it depressed the hell out of me because I’m trying to be reborn. I’m trying to make some order out of my chaos. Cool sentences and a character that wanders off and goes nuts is of no use to me or to most readers. I want a character that sets off on a path and survives suffering. I want a hero's journey. I wonder if Lacey herself is sick of it all and is trying to show the dangers of this selfish detachment or whether this, in her mind, is a fine character that is somehow a romantic version of a modern woman.
The novel ends with a very bleak view of existence. The narrator thinks to herself, “no one is anything more than a slow event and I knew I was not a woman but a series of movements, not a life, but a shake…” It sounds poetic and literary, but in the end this girl was unable to find any meaning in life; she was a dead thing in the universe and this is terribly unnerving coming from a young person my age because I don't want to be like that. Even after her journey, she could not bring herself forth. In the end, I’m not sure what the novel is about other than a girl that loses herself in New Zealand.
All of this only fed my concern that I possibly wasted good hours of my life in writing workshops talking about stories that go precisely nowhere, even when they go somewhere like New Zealand.