Photo: Lauren Volo.
Catherine Lacey has published work in Oxford American, McSweeney’s Quarterly, the New York Times, Vice, AFAR, and elsewhere. She was a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, a recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Artists’ Fellowship, and a resident at the Omi International Arts Center. In the fall of 2016, she will be the Kittredge Visiting Writer at the University of Montana. She is the author of the novel Nobody Is Ever Missing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). Her second novel and first story collection are forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
In Catherine Lacey’s accomplished and unsettling novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing, a young woman drops out of her life and hitches around New Zealand. There are glimmers of what she’s left behind and an uncertainty about whether she’ll ever find a place to come to rest. Lacey is an intense, lyrical writer who uses the randomness of travel, the brief immersions in the lives of strangers, to reveal the psychology of loss and the dissolution of certainty. The sentences are as adventurous as the protagonist, capable of swerving from the whimsical to the philosophical with exquisite speed. Lacey successfully compels us into what is carefully revealed to be an unraveling mind. A great observer is at work, deft and urgent. It takes a powerful hand to make beautiful writing look so effortless.
From Nobody Is Ever Missing
They looked and made quick calculations: a 7 percent chance of con artistry, 4 percent chance of prostitution, 50 percent chance of mental instability, 20 percent chance of obnoxiousness, a 4 percent chance of violent behavior. I was probably none of these things, at least not at first, but to all the passing drivers and everyone else in this country I could be anything, so they just slowed, had a look, made a guess, kept driving.
Women, they’d squint quickly, make a worried face, continue on. Men (I later learned) stared from the farthest distance—their eyes trained to stay on me in case I was something they needed to shoot or capture—but they hardly ever stopped. Up close, I was not so promising: just a woman wearing a backpack, a cardigan, green sneakers. And young-seeming, of course, because you must seem young to get away with this kind of vulnerability, standing on a road’s shoulder, showing the pale underside of your arm. You must seem both totally harmless and able, if necessary, to push a knife through any tender gut.
But I didn’t know any of this at first—I just stood and waited, not knowing that wearing sunglasses would always leave me stranded, not knowing that wearing my hair down meant something I did not mean, not knowing that my posture had to be so carefully calibrated, that I should always stand like a dancer ready to leap.
Only two cars and fifteen minutes passed before someone stopped, a black truck driven by a sun-wrinkled old lady wearing a straw hat.
Into town? she asked, and I took this as a chance not to make a decision, to just agree.
While we drove she asked me about myself and I found it impossible to answer anything honestly. She asked what had brought me to New Zealand and I said that my husband had. She asked me what my husband did and I said he was a farmer.
Well, he wants to be a farmer, I said. That’s why he’s here.
Everything grows here, the old woman said proudly. All sorts of plants and other things. Do you have children?
I laughed by accident, the kind of laugh that didn’t say you thought something was funny.
Well, my goodness. I suppose women really are putting off having children these days. You ought to get to it. I only bring it up because there is no joy in life greater than an empty house. Don’t let the other women fool you with this empty-nest-syndrome stuff. Life gets better once the kids are out and the sooner you have them the sooner they can leave.
Ah. Okay, I said.
What’s even better is finally being a widow.
The woman started laughing and laughing and laughing so much I felt like I had to laugh, too, so I did and then I realized we were laughing at how her husband was dead, which really didn’t seem so funny, and I think we realized that at the same time, and we both stopped laughing and there was that deeply quiet moment after two people have laughed too much and we let that quiet moment stay for the rest of the drive. During that silence, I thought of the night when my husband and I were having one of the arguments about the way we argue and I went into the kitchen to get a glass of water but instead picked up a knife because I was thinking about stabbing myself in the face—not actually considering stabbing myself in the face, but thinking that it would be a physical impression of how I felt—and picked up a chef’s knife, our heavy good one that I used for everything from cutting soft fruit to impaling pumpkins, and looked at it, laughed a noiseless laugh, put the chef’s knife down, poured myself a glass of water, and drank it fast, until I choked a little, and I went back to arguing with my husband and he didn’t know about my face-stabbing thoughts and it made me even angrier that he didn’t know about my face-stabbing thoughts, that he couldn’t just intuit these things, look into my eyes and know that the way he spoke to me was a plain waste of our life—but here in the car with the widowed stranger I didn’t have to feel any of those feelings anymore because I had left my husband and our arguments and my chef’s knife and I had come to this country where I could laugh, so gently, gently laugh at things that were actually not funny.
Read more work from the 2016 Whiting Award winners here.
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