“DID LOVE HAVE to be declared to exist or was it just as real when it was a silent belief?” Catherine Lacey asks in her new novel, The Answers. “It seemed to her that people could call love whatever they wanted, but it was really just a long manipulation, a changing, a willingness to be changed.”
The Answers is — at least on the surface — a book about the complexity, or perhaps the futility, of love. It’s the follow-up to a very internal, almost lyrical Nobody Is Ever Missing, Lacey’s 2014 debut novel, which has amassed a cultish fervor. It’s admittedly a cult of which I’m a part; the book hijacked my world the moment I opened it. I dog-eared its pages, racing through the first three quarters before forcing myself to slow down so that I could put off the inevitable pain of letting it go. When I wrote about it for a year-end list, I brought up Hélène Cixous’s idea about picking up books in the dark and how every so often we find a family member when we open a book’s covers, how Nobody Is Ever Missing was that book for me.
My connection wasn’t formed through a shared history with the narrator, nor because I was especially taken by the minimal plot, but simply from the book’s close observations of the world — the relatability of going through life with a detailed interior world, seeing a layer of human interaction that’s difficult to put into words and translate to others. While I was by no means alone in my fanatical response, it was also a divisive book. Those who came to the book looking for a good story were generally disappointed, while those who came looking for some sort of poetic revelation were thrilled.
The Answers is perhaps the middle ground between what fans loved about her the first time around and what her detractors thought she was lacking. While it rarely has the stunning, labyrinthine sentences of Nobody Is Ever Missing, it directs that energy into an unpredictable, layered plot that will likely take most readers by surprise.
When the novel begins, Mary is finally finding relief for her pain. The child of apocalyptic, off-the-grid Christian parents in rural Tennessee, Mary now lives in New York City. She began to experience debilitating pain while in the middle of aimless, credit-card-charged world travels, and when she came home to New York found that doctors couldn’t identify the source of the pain.
Given this failure of Western medicine, her best friend Chandra guides her through a wide variety of New Age healing practices with limited success, until she tries an experimental bodywork technique called Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia, or PAKing. The problem is that PAKing is expensive. Mary’s bookkeeping job at a failing travel agency doesn’t allow expenses outside of paying rent and keeping the debt collectors at bay, so she searches for sources of quick money. Through a mysterious flyer on a health food store’s bulletin board she ends up interviewing for a famous actor’s pseudoscientific vanity project, the “Girlfriend Experiment.”
The actor, Kurt Sky, frustrated by short-lived relationships and the feeling that his fame stands in the way of truly trusting someone, has hired a team of biotech researchers to enact the Girlfriend Experiment, giving it the ostensible objective of devising “a scientifically proven system for making human pair bonding behavior more perfect and satisfying, to make the benefits of limerence persist over the long term.” Part of the experiment rests on the idea that no one person can fulfill all the roles we ask a significant other to fill, so there are a range of different girlfriends — Maternal Girlfriend, Anger Girlfriend, Intellectual Girlfriend, Mundanity Girlfriend. Given Kurt’s trust issues, Mary — having grown up cut off from society and still being largely baffled by pop culture — is the perfect candidate for the experiment and gets hired for the role of Emotional Girlfriend. The dates, during which Kurt and the participating girlfriend have sensors attached to them so the researcher’s can monitor their reactions, are called Relational Experiments and are peppered by Internal Directives, which are pulses the researchers send through sensors to effect hormones and neurotransmitters that often lead to unforeseen reactions.
While the forward propulsion of the novel is undeniable, Lacey operates as an essayist as often as she operates as a novelist, seeking to raise questions that can never be answered. And this, of course, is the joke of the book’s title: the answers are not answers at all. “But no matter how much we want it,” Mary’s PAKing guru says toward the end of the book, “nothing is ever fixed or final, and all the answers we get are the ones within us, and they change. So often they’re not the ones we want to hear.”
Moments of the book feel similar to the contrarian wisdom of essayists like Sallie Tisdale or Charles D’Ambrosio — writers who question basic assumptions and enjoy lingering in the uncomfortable gray areas of life. It’s in this questioning that the concept of love takes its biggest beating. “And who is to say that loving a person isn’t just loving the idea of that person and not the actual person,” Mary wonders early in the book, “all these incomprehensible clots of flesh with all their years gone by and vanished, all their history stored in basements even they cannot reach?”
The aspect of love Lacey comes back to most often in The Answers is pairing: why we have the desire to pair off, and why we let the navigation of it take up so much of our time and energy. In one of most humorous moments of the book, Mary sees a couple arguing and, high on MDMA, “in a moment of revelation,” translates their argument to Kurt. “Why are you not me?” she imagines one of them saying, “Why are you not doing life like I would do it? I thought being in love meant getting to be two people. How could you do something I wouldn’t do? This is impossible and insane. I can’t be only one person. I need to be you, too. Let me be you.”
Mary seems to go back and forth on whether her lack of success in pairing off is her failing, or if the desire to pair is a failing in other people. At one point, she watches a seemingly happy couple from her neighborhood as they sit on a bench in a park, and realizes that she, by herself, had what they had. “It was clear then, so painfully clear, that people fell in love to find something in themselves that they’d had all along.”
While I’m presenting The Answers as a book about love, Lacey is thematically ambitious and covers enough ground that the book could read in a variety of ways — love perhaps serving, in an essayistic manner, as the apparent subject from which the authentic subject emerges. One possible read on the book could be life after religious faith. Recalling an incident where she began weeping after an innocuous exchange, she says, “I became accustomed to these unexplainable moments, emotional things. It was just a part of living in the world, I told myself, of not having an obvious god.”
Sometimes, walking down the street, Mary catches “a silent flash” from the eyes of a stranger, “a visit from the god in other people.” She wishes for the
certainty I’d been born into — having a user’s manual for life and an unmovable, divine love […] a middle ground between believing in a certain god and believing that some mysterious third substance was between people. Like churches, I thought, there should be a place for people who just weren’t sure. There should be a place for people who see something, but won’t dare say what it is.
One of the biggest risks Lacey takes in the book is a series of point-of-view shifts. Beginning with Mary in first-person narration, she then follows a string of other characters in third-person close, before landing back on Mary using third-person close. One of the best outcomes of these shifts is getting inside the head of Ashley, the Anger Girlfriend. Through Ashley, Lacey is able to emphasize another layer of The Answers’s investigation: the expectations of and violation of women. Lines like, “These men, these bitches of their boneless limbs — didn’t they know being a woman meant being at war?” and others that Mary wouldn’t say (while certainly entitled to given her experiences) or would at least phrase less directly, become possible through Ashley.
The most powerful of these moments comes after Ashley is raped and immediately has to deal with a man hitting on her while she eats in a restaurant. “He watched her the way adults watch children, entertained by what they think is naïveté, and it seemed to Ashley that boys grew up to be men, but girls just stayed girls as long as the whole world agreed to treat them this way, liabilities, precious objects, things to be protected or told what to do.”
It’s debatable whether all of the point-of-view shifts contribute as much as Ashley’s does, but as a whole they largely pay off. The dystopian story line may be The Answers’s biggest risk; in the world of dystopian futures it’s only a slight dystopia, where Lacey reaches outside her comfort zone to make a larger point that a purely realist tale wouldn’t be able to make. There’s no doubt that this toe dip into genre fiction will be as divisive as Nobody Is Ever Missing’s lyrically driven internal world, but it’s also clear that Lacey didn’t take the toe dip lightly; it’s well thought out and she’s careful not to let it overwhelm the book.
For Lacey’s remarkable skill to be fully embraced, we may need a new genre to categorize her work under. Lacey’s books are not really novels, in a similar way that Woolf’s The Waves, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, or Rachel Cusk’s recent Outline are arguably not really novels. Her books are too plot driven to be called experimental, and while they’re on the edge of being classified as any kind of hybrid genre, I’d be more confident recommending her work to a fan of genre-bending work than someone looking for a good novel. Still, no matter how you categorize them, it seems inevitable that her books will find a larger audience. Her sentences are like reading an iconic prose style before it’s become iconic. Her work’s divisiveness, if anything, will only build her cult appeal.
Toward the end of The Answers, Lacey distills her inquiries — and, in many ways, distills the questions behind much of literature (and life itself, for that matter) — into a few simple lines: “How to best love? How to know anything, for certain, in another’s heart? Such a serious thing we are doing, and no one really knows how to do it.”