Publication date: June 6, 2017
Catherine Lacey’s new novel, The Answers appealed to me because of its premise: intimacy in the modern world of technology. At the novel’s center is Mary, a young woman, who used to be known as Junia, born in the Tennessee mountains to a father who believed the only way to truly worship God was to be removed from all that is manmade. This should be FULL. STOP. all Lacey needs to craft fascinating reading. However, it’s just the appetizer. By the time we meet Mary she is in her mid-twenties and lives in New York City, having escaped her monastic childhood a decade ago. She has a job that used to pay the bills except for the last year when she has been beset by excruciating pain caused by an undiagnosed illness that has ground her life to a halt. She is out of money and is being hounded by creditors.
Got it? Well, Lacey’s not finished. In fact, that’s all back story and we’re not even to the novel’s plot yet. Mary has a mysterious wealthy friend, Chandra, whose life is spent in the search for spiritual fulfillment. She checks in on Mary in between trips to Bali and Nepal. She recommends Ed, a practitioner of PAK (an obscure form of complementary bodywork) to relieve Mary’s pain. Mary goes, finds some relief, but is told a full cure could take months and is exorbitantly expensive. And…now we have the plot. In order to pay for these sessions Mary answers a Craigslist ad and is hired to be one participant in something known as the Girlfriend Experiment. She is hired thanks to her utter lack of knowledge about pop culture because the man behind the experiment, Kurt Sky, is a world famous actor who no longer believes he can be loved just for himself. Mary is one of many women hired—each to fulfill a single role in a normal male-female relationship. She is Emotional Girlfriend and is there to be wholly supportive and nurturing, but without any physicality. There are also the other girlfriend iterations: Angry, Maternal, Intimacy, Mundanity and Intellectual.
Where The Answers works is in how Lacey parses human relationships into scientifically measurable components. It is not just the Kurt’s whim, it is a clinical trial run by biotech researchers, with highly regimented scenarios, markers and elements. Failure to comply results in immediate removal. Yet, Mary, for whatever reason, works well in her new job. She is the pliant in compliant.
She’d been told the most important part of her job was to follow the instructions, since the instructions were scientifically designed to bring about the correct feeling in her that would bring about the correct feeling in him.
Lacey’s observations and prose are often startling in their insight, but too many impediments sink The Answers. I understand cerebral, I understand provocative. I also understand too much plot turning into an unpalatable stew of bizarre characters who appear and disappear, unexplained motivations, and a protagonist who is seems only tangentially involved in her own life. My take-away? Pathetic, odd woman is caught up in an employment scam by a famous actor so limited, misogynistic and manipulative he can’t hold down a relationship or finish a film anymore. Meaning that, within the novel’s experiment, I had no problem walking away from my role as Invested Reader.