The Short Version: A young woman named Elyria unexpectedly leaves her husband and their comfortable Upper West Side life and runs off to New Zealand. Inside of her mind, there are questions and uncertainties and things completely unable to be articulated – but they are the sort of nerves that could very well shatter (or have already shattered) her life.
The Review: One of the big struggles with being a reviewer is the line between personal and critical reflection. When a book speaks to a reader on a fundamental level, something beyond the prose or the ideas, of course it’s important to mention that – but what if the fundamental level is an awkward or too personal one? But, then, isn’t the reason that I do this to discuss my reactions to these books as one individual, just as this quarter-centenary dude in New York who happens to read a lot?
I mention all of this because I finished this book and sat crying in the bathtub for a good ten minutes after it was done. And I am transfixed by the cover – the image of this young woman serenely going underwater. In fact, although I don’t think this book has necessarily the same long-term impact, I’m not sure I’ve been so affected at a very specific moment in my life by a book since A Visit From the Goon Squad.
I retain a fantasy – one that Lacey’s main character, this tragic and fragile Elyria, indulges – of being able to pick up and disappear. To just go somewhere for a while, to be able to get away from everything else and to deal with yourself, yourself only. And I’ve never been able to quite figure out why. It’s not a depressive thing, necessarily, nor is it misanthropic or angry and angsty or anything in particular. It just is. And for the first time in my life, I saw a story that just understood that. That understood the impossibility of explaining why we think certain things, why we do certain things – other than that we simply must just do them. Because we must. Because our brains say that this is the thing we must do and sometimes you can’t even explain it in words other than to say that, no, you aren’t sorry; no, you don’t think you did anything ‘wrong’; yes, you understand how someone else might see that differently but you don’t because you just had to. In order to save yourself.
Elyria calls it her wildebeest. This creature in her brain, in her body – a part of her that cannot be caged, that is just an animal and that drives these stranger (to an outsider) decisions. It can be violent, it can be startling, it can be unseeing – and we all have one. But in indulging hers, Elyria sets off a chain of events that send her even a little further down the path of being unable to comprehend the world around her. Not in a scary-psychological-disease kind of way, though. Just in the way that I feel sometimes, when I look at the lives that other people lead and I don’t understand how they can live those lives because those prescribed lives seem so awful to me. And my own life, which has been not terribly extra/out-of-the ordinary by some standards, contains those moments. Those moments where I do something that causes those around me to look at me with that shocked look of “do you understand what you’re doing?”
And this is the thing that perhaps tied me tightest to this novel and to Elyria. Her interactions with people – with all of the people she encounters, almost to the person actually – all seem to center around this fact that nobody seems to want Elyria to do whatever the hell it is she’s trying to do. They want her, instead, to conform to an understanding. Wife. Tenant. Friend. Child. And while these terms are all well and good, and while the pain that she inflicts (unintentionally, I do believe) on the people she leaves behind cannot be denied, it infuriates me that she was being forced to ‘choose’, in a sense, one of these more-easily-understood paths. That her husband would be such a huge asshole, that strangers would attempt to impose their own lessons upon her life. Why can’t a person pick up and disappear halfway around the world, if that’s the thing that they need to do for their own mental health?
For, at the end of the day, this is a book about the fragile mental health of a late twentysomething. And yes, Elyria is more fucked up than most of us – an absent father, an alcoholic and not terribly loving mother, an adopted sister who committed suicide, marrying the professor who was the last person to see said sister alive – but that doesn’t mean that I don’t understand. Just because I had a happy home life doesn’t mean I don’t feel the wildebeest kick at the cage sometimes. And the thing that is so remarkable about this book is how Lacey writes it as a sort of near-stream of consciousness. The sentences flow and ramble like thoughts, like thoughts that you can’t quite articulate the end of when you start the sentence and so you have to keep talking until you run out of steam in one way or another. She’s got a sharp wit, too – she turns some lines that are so wonderfully, darkly funny that you can’t help but laugh (seriously, Sasha Frere-Jones, laugh a little) – but really, it’s the existential fear of not understanding that drives this novel. It is, again, something elemental and primal. It is a worry that you’re getting it wrong and you don’t know why and you feel like suddenly you can’t fix it and so what do you do? Do you stab your husband? Do you walk out on him? Both? Neither?
But I think it is important to close by saying: I don’t believe Elyria has a problem. She is not depressive, she is not psychotic, she is not any of those things that people might seek to label her with. But she is confused. She is lost. And it’s nice to know that other people get lost sometimes too.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. This is a startlingly good debut novel. The writing is crisp and assured and, in the rambling internal monologue narrative style, Lacey pulls off the sort of trick that most established writers couldn’t hope to achieve. Elyria is the sort of character who speaks to a type of reader, a type of human being, and while she might infuriate some… I think everyone needs to have respect, understanding, dare-I-say patience with Elyria and with any folks in the reader’s life who might suffer similarly. This world can be impossibly difficult to deal with in the best of circumstances – so if someone needs to step off the merry-go-round for a little while, it’s wrong to attack them for it. It’s wrong not to try to understand or allow it. Nobody is ever missing, not to themselves – it might just take a little while to understand where you are.