Temporal Distance in “Nobody, Somebody, Anybody” – Chicago Review of Books


Among the great and hidden challenges of past tense, first-person narration—and one that, while seemingly omnipresent in contemporary fiction, is seldom discussed—is fixing the temporal distance between the act of the narrating and the fictive events themselves. It is a concern that asks, essentially, how far away in time is the protagonist from herself while she tells her tale? How long has it been since the events we’re talking about have taken place? What is the temporal and psychic distance, the space between the narrating protagonist and the narrative protagonist? This question, impossible not to see once first noticed, is a key determinative in resolving many of such a novel’s central questions and in shaping and advancing its plot. In her sparkling confident debut, Nobody, Somebody, Anybody, Kelly McClorey proves herself not only well aware, but fully in command of this elusive fictive element.

Nobody, Somebody, Anybody centers around the story of a young woman, Amy, as she works as a self-styled chambermaid at a posh New England hotel, obsesses about becoming an EMT, offers silent paeans to her patron saint Florence Nightingale, and navigates the love life of her landlord-cum-confidant, Gary. A startling and charming debut, the lifeblood of McClorey’s work is the expertly formed and controlled voice with which our protagonist relates her often humorous, subtly sad, narrative. The book has a utopian grander to it, a Confederacy of Dunces-esq cosmopolitan inventory that paints its players in bold relief. Indeed, Amy has an element of Ignatius J Reilly’s self assurance and misplaced conviction:, more the optimist and less the Machiavelli, perhaps, but a proper literary descendant all the same. What’s more, McClorey has more than a trace of John Kennedy Toole’s uproarious plot making and brilliant craftsmanship to her, with interior and exterior dialogue that sings and descriptions that slice through the daily world. 

As we move through the wonderfully strange yet brilliantly familiar events of Amy’s landmark summer, we learn about her tragicomic backstory via precise memory that never feels authorial or expository; instead each passage of Amy’s past—given in a manner that causes each to read like a coveted piece of a historical puzzle serves as an organic outgrowth of a natural scene, with McClorey’s smooth mechanics allowing her to seamlessly render her protagonist’s moves between fictive present and past. From page to page, across the whole, Nobody, Somebody, Anybody is a book that’s hard to decipher and harder to give up. It lends itself to long luxurious bouts of reading, propelled by its arresting worldview, unique voice, and quick pace. McClorey also manages a well balanced sense of readerly mystery, playing on that narrative-temporal location right up until the technically daring, utterly engrossing ending. 

As she goes along, McClorey also offers an amusing critique of New England high society, stuffy academia, and the perils of online dating. Nobody, Somebody, Anybody is a finely calibrated book for its era, one that even—while feeling more fortuitous happenstance than anything—fits in a loose, thematic way with a pandemic-weary world. Amy’s fixation on becoming an EMT and making a life as a caregiver, as well as her strategy to turn the placebo effect on herself via an escalating series of trickery and machinations, invoke elements of our modern society in a refreshingly organic manner. Enmeshed in McClorey’s fleet footed plot, the intrigues of housekeeping and furniture shopping have never felt quite as urgent.

There are more strengths here than clever plot and precise point of view, however. McClorey proves herself more than capable in all aspects of the art of the novel—a rare feat for a freshman effort. With a singular voice, a carousing, quixotic, dauntless protagonist, rich and organic humor, the disarming, thought provoking ending, and above all, the current of sadness and depth of humanity that runs below the surface, time and again the reader finds themselves simply impressed with Nobody, Somebody, Anybody. While many of those elements invoke comparisons to Toole’s classic, it is also in and of itself a charming and self-assured debut. From start to finish, here is the uncommon book that is supremely sure in conception, approach, and execution, and one that avoids trying to do too much—a common pitfall of the discursive first person. This last point should be interpreted as high praise:McClorey finds a razor sharp narrative focus and doesn’t allow her heroine to stray off course. By limiting her temporal range and perspective, McClorey is able to keep every scene charged with energy and importance, steering clear of those self-serious, overly introspective moments of expository reflection that often come with a first person narrative in which the act of the telling and the appearance of fictive events are distant in time. By keeping her narrating and narrative protagonists nearly one in the same, separated by only weeks, and with the former knowing little more than the latter, McCorley creates a central character of refreshing accessibility, vulnerability, and verisimilitude.

As Walker Percy so aptly discussed in his incisive introduction to Toole’s masterpiece, there is nothing quite like elusive sadness in great fiction. In Nobody, Somebody, Anybody, McClorey imbues both her novel and its protagonist with that resonant quality. As with Confederacy of Dunces, the melancholy here is difficult to locate, and not only because of the humor and bright moments that fill the pages—but because, too, Amy is unable or unwilling to confront the roots of that sadness, a brilliant character with a tragic blind spot. It is that humanity, that all-too-real failing, which gives the novel its staying power, its lamentation, its depth as a work of art. One identifies, encourages, pities, and feels for Amy, as McClorey relies on her accomplished prose and structural abilities to offer the reader unspoken insights that Amy herself can never quite see. Throughout her debut, McClorey demonstrates—in witty, polished prose, across vibrant scenes in a palpable summer, and through an endearingly flawed central character—the skills and sensibilities of a sophisticated, mature writer. Drawing smoothly on its literary ancestors while at the same time offering a fresh and original perspective, Nobody, Somebody, Anybody stands as a remarkable first novel, one that will stay with its reader and makes bold promises about the future career of its creator.

Nobody, Somebody, Anybody
By Kelly McClorey
Ecco Press
Published July 06, 2021


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