Isle McElroy’s second novel, People Collide, is a body-swapping, Kafkaesque story that explores gender, identity and how well we can know one another.
On a fall afternoon, Eli arrives at his wife Elizabeth’s classroom at the end of the school day and can’t understand why Elizabeth’s boss is suddenly calling him Elizabeth. Slowly, Eli comes to understand that he is somehow inhabiting Elizabeth’s body, even as his memories and thoughts remain his own. And, just as mysterious, he discovers that Elizabeth has disappeared.
Both Eli and Elizabeth are writers, though Elizabeth is the more ambitious, accomplished one—and she’s been awarded a teaching fellowship in Bulgaria. Eli has tagged along for a year of expat life, adjusting to their too-small studio apartment and the moody southern Bulgarian city, and trying to write. So even before “The Incident,” as he calls it, Eli and Elizabeth are unsettled, foreigners in a foreign place. As Eli copes with this strange new reality and struggles to credibly inhabit Elizabeth’s body, he searches for his lost wife. Misunderstandings abound; their handful of friends, along with Eli’s mother and Elizabeth’s parents, all think that Eli has abandoned Elizabeth, though it’s Elizabeth (in Eli’s body) who has left.
People Collide asks questions about gender, desire, marriage and family dynamics as it offers mysteries for Eli to solve. Where has Elizabeth gone? Is she still in Europe? And is she, in fact, in Eli’s body, as he is in hers? And if Eli-as-Elizabeth finds Elizabeth-as-Eli, what happens then? It’s not a spoiler to say that Eli does find Elizabeth, and McElroy’s language in describing the couple’s encounters is inventive and sometimes funny.
Later sections of the novel move into Elizabeth’s point of view, and then into the perspective of Johanna, Elizabeth’s mother, who sees 28-year-old Elizabeth and Eli as not-quite-adults. These late sections are quite moving, as Eli and Elizabeth slowly come to a changed understanding of themselves, one another and their parents. People Collide is a distinctive and atmospheric novel.