Only the Fools: The Fable of Identity and Convention in Catherine Lacey’s “Pew”

By Ryan SmernoffJuly 21, 2020

Only the Fools: The Fable of Identity and Convention in Catherine Lacey’s “Pew”

Pew by Catherine Lacey

ALLOW ME TO BEGIN with a recommendation: when you pick up Catherine Lacey’s Pew, do not overlook the epigraph. Read it slowly. Reread it. If you have time, do yourself a favor and read the entire short story from which it’s taken: Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 Hugo Award–winning short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” You won’t regret it. (Who could ever regret reading Le Guin, anyway?) Anyone familiar with this short story will have an inkling of what Lacey’s novel will explore. With her epigraph, Lacey gives a sharp wink at readers who are in the know, hinting that the tale ahead challenges the common sensibilities that we learn to take for granted. In short, prepare to face a utilitarian dilemma, embrace its discomfort, and respond to its challenge.

Lacey is known for writing with a fluid lyricism that breathes life into her text, allowing her to traverse mundane environments with incisive emotional depth. Though ostensibly a realist writer, her style ushers the reader into that delightfully uncanny space between fantasy and reality. The fable-like milieu that Pew inhabits creeps closer to surrealism than any of her previous works, and it does so while remaining in a very real — or at least recognizable — world. Her characters are built with greater nuance and charity than they are in her previous novels (though they are just as wonderfully developed as those in her recent story collection, Certain American States), even when they are being unmistakably uncharitable.

The most impressive feat Lacey has accomplished in her newest novel is the ambitious construction of the narrator: an unidentifiable stranger, apparently mute, lacking any clear markers of sex, race, age, or background. Some readers may find it difficult to buy into the narrator’s ambiguous identity, which is not necessarily a negative note since all fiction requires a suspension of disbelief. It’s hard to imagine relating to a character bereft of any identifying categories, so it makes sense that some might find this narratorial conceit hard to swallow. But that difficulty is also a crucial element to what Lacey so magnificently accomplishes in this novel: a work that evokes the same presumptions and privileges in the reader as it does in its characters — particularly those of the townsfolk.

In a small, conservative town in the present-day American South, a churchgoing family discovers the narrator sleeping in a pew during Sunday morning service and decides to take the stranger into their home. Unsure what to make of this silent person of indeterminate features, the townsfolk nickname the narrator Pew (after where they were discovered) and pass the narrator from household to household as the townsfolk prepare for their annual — and mysteriously developed, in the vein of the Festival of Summer in Le Guin’s Omelas — Forgiveness Festival.

Pew’s silence compels an array of lilting and often ironically malicious diatribes, confessions, gossip, and life stories by which the townsfolk project their own beliefs and prejudices onto Pew, frequently voicing suspicions and accusations of malevolence at the quiet and almost entirely passive narrator. “It’s only the fools you’re fooling,” are one woman’s first words to Pew, while staring at an empty television that’s presumably reflecting an image of herself. “Only the fools.” Of course, we later learn that this woman has lived for several years in a state of self-deception, making the presumed reflection in the television screen entirely appropriate.

Like many small towns, news travels fast and secrets are hard to keep in the novel’s insulated village. The combination of Pew’s silence and ambiguous identifying features draws out the townsfolks’ assumptions about who the stranger is and where they came from. Some give Pew the benefit of the doubt, assuming the narrator has been through traumatic circumstances. Others feel threatened by Pew and are more demanding that they disclose whether they are a man or woman, black or white, old or young, etc. The most insistent and aggressive of these are almost exclusively religious men in positions of power or authority in the church. The stranger’s silence notwithstanding, the narrator doesn’t answer any of their questions for one simple reason — Pew simply doesn’t know the answer. While looking in a mirror, Pew reflects:

I’m having trouble lately with remembering. I left some place, began walking, slept in all those churches, then everything else happened — that’s all I know. […]

Anything I remember being told about my body contradicts something else I’ve been told. I look at my skin and I cannot say what shade it is. I look into a mirror and see nothing in particular. It seems I am sitting somewhere within all this skin and muscle and bone and fat and hair. Can only other people tell you what your body is, or is there a way that you can know something truer about it from the inside, something that cannot be seen or explained?

Pew’s trouble with remembering returns throughout the novel. Even faced with their own body in the mirror, Pew can’t recall what their physical traits amount to; in other words, the townsfolk are vying for information about Pew’s body that the narrator themself doesn’t know. And as anxiety and foreboding builds with the approaching Forgiveness Festival, the town begins to perceive Pew as a threat and ends up passing them off to the “other” (i.e., black) side of town, where the stranger remains until the day of the dreaded festival.

Given the sexy smorgasbord of book club discussion topics this novel offers — identity, race, sex, age, responsibility, religion, disclosure — it may be easy to overlook a subtle, yet poignant element this novel has to offer, and that is the effect of disability on one’s identity and the public perception of that person because of that disability. To be clear, the narrator’s disability has nothing to do with the above list of discussion topics. Rather, it’s about the crucial element that makes the narrator’s position in the novel possible: memory loss.

Those undisclosed aspects of Pew’s identity remain hidden, in large part, because the narrator is incapable of remembering them. With this in mind, the townsfolk’s treatment of the narrator is actually far worse than it would have been if the narrator had simply chosen to withhold the information from them. To those who might argue that the townsfolk didn’t know about Pew’s disability, even if that’s the case, there’s still plenty of evidence that Pew might suffer from some kind of neurological issue, so they are still without excuse. Memory loss can indicate a serious medical condition that requires specialized treatment. To the townsfolks’ credit, they do make an appointment to have Pew checked by a doctor, but the medical office turns Pew away as a noncompliant patient (Pew didn’t get undressed when asked to), and we learn later that this was mostly because the doctor had a heavy patient load that day. There are standards and policies that medical professionals work with to ensure the safety and dignity of people in Pew’s position. So, it’s problematic when a group that’s responsible for someone with a disability favors knowledge of that person’s identity, which the individual is unable to share, over getting that person the treatment they need. Consequently, the town isn’t simply a community with a bad holier-than-thou complex; through their behavior, the townsfolk are asserting that their right to know the narrator’s sex, race, age, and background is superior to the narrator’s dignity.

With so much attention focused on Pew’s body, whether male or female, black or white, young or old, it’s no surprise that the narrator has an almost Neoplatonist view of the body: “I shut my eyes and imagined a life in which only our thoughts and intentions could be seen,” Pew reflects, “where our bodies were not flesh but something else, something that was more than all this skin, this weight.” So much weight is placed upon bodily factors over which we have little control and that have no way of communicating a person’s quality. Pew’s observation challenges the reader to imagine a measure that goes beyond flesh — a way of considering others by their kindness, honesty, dignity, and respect, rather than their skin, vocal cadence, or genitals. Pew’s own questioning reveals this truth even further:

[D]id all this human trouble begin in our bodies, these failing things, weaker or stronger, lighter or darker, taller or shorter? Why did they cause so much trouble for us? Why did we use them against one another? Why did we think the content of a body meant anything? Why did we draw our conclusions with our bodies when the body is so inconclusive, so mercurial?

For anyone who values literature that tests commonly held standards regarding what a character should be and how they are developed, this is a book not to be missed. Its success at pushing beyond preconceived ideas about a character’s identity and narratorial credence will be discussed among writers for years to come.

In her October 2018 interview with The Rumpus, Lacey offered the following observation:

[C]onventionality of all forms should always beg critique. What is seen as convention in one era is often later seen as monstrously shortsighted, so anyone who is interested in the betterment of the world should constantly ask themselves what conventions have they accepted and whether they really accept the values that convention expresses. […] And one should always remember that what appears conventional from the outside may not be from within, and what seems radical could easily be mired in disastrous power dynamics.

Although she was discussing Certain American States at the time, Lacey’s commentary gives us a glimpse into the concerns she carried with her while she was writing Pew. This powerful insight on the critique of conventionality is likely informed, at least in part, by Le Guin’s short story, from which Lacey pulls her epigraph. Lacey’s entire third novel is imbued with the wisdom gleaned from exploring the damaging conventions that society asks us to take for granted for the sake of a utilitarian end.

Fables that caution against blind adherence to these collective, tacitly agreed upon social contracts are not new, but they seem to prove themselves necessary in every passing generation. We’ve always been surprisingly adept at creating our own worst enemies and acclimating to their presence. And although Lacey doesn’t pose these questions explicitly, it’s still fair to ask: Do we, in solidarity with Pew, simply leave these conventions behind without looking back? Or do we have a greater obligation (to our species, to society, to ourselves) to remain within a corrupt system to fight for the necessary changes that we need to flourish? Do we even have the necessary resources to put up this kind of fight? The issue is far more complicated than these questions imply, and the purpose of literature is not to simply give us the answers. Instead, they offer something far greater: a glimpse into worlds beyond our own comfortable bubbles in which it’s easy to remain, and the vocabulary we need to explore and interrogate ourselves.

Great works of literature don’t shove their heads in the sand and pretend like the world is not what it is. They may reimagine and even poke fun (if we’re lucky), but they do so while continuing to observe, engage, interrogate, implicate, and assess who, when, and where we actually are. Unlike some novels that might require some cerebral gymnastics to make a comparison to our current situation, Lacey’s new novel exposes the looming and impending contracts that we might not realize we’ve signed up for, and the unknown consequences of both choosing to act or not. With that accomplished, our task is to face our own responsibility and respond accordingly.


Ryan Smernoff is a writer who has worked as an assistant editor at Henry Holt, Knopf, and Norton. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University.

LARB Contributor

Ryan Smernoff is an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where he teaches courses in Editing and Publishing. He has worked in the editorial departments at Henry Holt and Company, the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, and W. W. Norton. He has also developed and copyedited books for Simon and Schuster, Pantheon, Vintage/Anchor, Picador, St. Martin's Griffin, Callisto Media, Indelible Editions, Abrams, Weldon Owen, Mountaineers Books, and Andrews McMeel Publishing. He holds an MA in English Literature from California State University, Long Beach, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University.


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