It should feel like too much to smash together a book about undiagnosable illnesses and New Age alternative remedies with a book about a New Age relationship experiment run by a narcissistic celebrity with a book about the dehumanizing gig economy with a book about growing up under Voluntaryist religious fundamentalism. The genius of Catherine Lacey lies in the fact that her new book, The Answers, doesn’t feel like too much; the pieces are bizarre and timely and fit together like puzzle pieces into a somehow timeless examination of humanity.
Lacey’s heroine has been backed into a corner. Raised by fundamentalist Christians in a rural home, she had no official documents or real contact with the outside culture until she left home as a teenager and moved in with an aunt, who renamed her from “Junia” to “Mary.” Now in New York, she’s drifted out of touch with her family. She has one dear friend, who has left on a mysterious quest of self-fulfillment. She has a job at a travel agency that barely keeps the lights on. And she has a mysterious, debilitating illness with no diagnosis. She sees doctors and specialists as her symptoms shift and worsen, but no one can put a finger on the root cause. Finally, she’s found a treatment that works ― PAKing, an alternative therapy that seems similar to reiki ― but that demands significant out-of-pocket expenditures.
So she decides, like so many young people crushed by debt and lack of opportunity today, to find a side hustle.
In another novel, that side hustle might have been driving for a ride-share or nannying the children of New York’s elite. In Lacey’s universe, nothing is so obvious. Mary responds to a mysterious help-wanted ad, then finds herself auditioning for a lavishly paid gig as, it turns out, the Emotional Girlfriend to movie star Kurt Sky. She’s both a guinea pig in an experiment to better understand the ideal relationship and an emotional laborer hired to keep the self-involved Kurt satisfied romantically. Scientists behind the scenes may be pulling the levers, but he’s providing the funding and reaping the immediate benefits of having carefully cast girlfriends to provide him with emotional support; for sex, for silent companionship, for arguing and for intellectual conversation.
This setup, dazzling and yet sinister as it may be, has little excitement for Mary. Being deprived of intimacy after her one relationship fell apart and her one friend disappeared on her seems to make her less particular about who she gives her time to ― besides, she needs the money. But she doesn’t much enjoy listening to Kurt’s emotional turmoil and responding in the directed fashion. He, on the other hand, finds himself fascinated by her quiet, submissive demeanor and her ability to listen with apparent interest for hours. (Naturally the Intellectual Girlfriend, with her frequently expressed opinions and education, soon wearies him.) He demands more and more of her time; soon, the experiment has transformed from a weird side gig to an all-consuming lifestyle that demands her to alienate herself from her own emotional needs to be what her boss asks. Still desperate to finish her PAK therapy, she clings to the unsettling but well-paying job.
As the novel progresses, we move in and out of Mary’s perspective to hear from Kurt, who muses on his failed past relationships and the movie he’s been trying to perfect in edits for 10 years; his obsessively devoted personal assistant, Matheson, who resents Kurt’s increasing dependence on Mary; and other women who participate in the project, particularly Ashley. A boxer with a burning grudge, she agrees to be Kurt’s Anger Girlfriend, only to find herself drawn back into a youthful trauma that threatens to blow up the whole experiment.
Lacey’s prose radiates elegance beneath its unassuming, unflashy surface; there’s nary a maladroit word or an unrevealing detail. She skillfully balances a truly absurd array of hot-button topics and weird narrative twists, playing them off each other virtuosically to weave a surreal-feeling story with deeply pragmatic concerns: How do we come to know ourselves? How do we become part of our community? What should we sacrifice to give a partner what they need? What should we demand from each other? Can a relationship be satisfying to us without dehumanizing our partner? How do we reconcile our personal fulfillment with the increasingly all-encompassing demands of simply staying alive in this economy? What are the limits of technology and science to provide us with happiness?
The Answers offers no answers, of course. Instead, in its stark portraits of bewildered, alienated people, it lays bare the unresolvable paradoxes of need that we all hold in our hearts.
The Bottom Line:
Lacey searches for the unanswerable human questions that drive us in her novel of lonely, lost New Yorkers grasping for connection in alienated modern society.
What other reviewers think:
NYT: “This is a novel of intellect and amplitude that deepens as it moves forward, until you feel prickling awe at how much mental territory unfolds.”
Kirkus: “With otherworldly precision and subtle wit, Lacey creates a gently surreal dreamscape that’s both intoxicating and profound.”
Who wrote it?
Catherine Lacey has written one previous novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing. She has won a Whiting Award and was selected as one of Granta’s Best Young American Writers.
Who will read it?
Fans of fiction that blends the surreal with realism, such as Murakami.
“I’d run out of options. That’s how these things usually happen, how a person ends up placing all her last hopes on a stranger, hoping that whatever that stranger might do to her would be the thing she needed done to her.
For so long I had been a person who needed other people to do things to me, and for so long no one had done the right thing to me, but already I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s one of my problems, I’m told, getting ahead of myself, so I’ve been trying to find a way to get behind myself, to be slow and quiet with myself like Ed used to be. But of course I can’t quite make it work, can’t be exactly who Ed was to me.”
“I looked at his face in the pale dawn, sleeping or just still, and I let myself completely feel the pain of missing a person who no longer exists. Not missing a person who has died, not mourning (I had yet to feel actual grief), but the strain of trying to see the person I’d fallen in love with inside the person he had become. Now I know this just comes with love, that there’s no way to avoid seeing a person gradually erased or warped by time, but the first time I realized this with Paul ― it felt apocryphal.”
By Catherine Lacey
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26.00
Published June 6, 2017
The Bottom Line is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.