The Answers by Catherine Lacey
Catherine Lacey’s latest novel is rather hard to really describe. The troubled narrator is looking for someone to tell her Answers, though she doesn’t really know what the questions are, and even if the Answers are wrong. This is not a promising project.
“It was a relief for someone to explain what was wrong, what had happened. No one else, none of those doctors…has even tried to explain anything to me…. But now Ed was giving me an answer: the pneuma. It didn’t matter if I believed in the pneuma or not. It didn’t even matter if he was right. It was an explanation. A story” (p. 24)
The plot is preposterous. A gigantically wealthy and weird reclusive actor decides to conduct an “experiment”, trying to discover how to optimize and sustain the feeling of “being in love”. With money no object, the experimental design is insane (and arguably illegal). He has sliced up a relationship into what he imagines are the functional parts (the “maternal girlfriend”, the “angry girlfriend”, the “emotional girlfriend”, etc.) They recruit different women to enact these roles, with the notion that they will highly optimize each component.
This is “The Girlfriend Experiment”.
“Responsibilities of the Emotional Girlfriend will include….:
“Listening to Kurt talk while remaining fully engaged by asking questions, maintaining eye contact, affirming his opinions, and offering limited amounts of advice or guidance that may or may not be entertained.”
“The Emotional Girlfriend should therefore never disagree, challenge or complain to Kurt. The motional Girlfriend will need to take care never to criticize him for anything, no matter how hones or caring her tone might be.” (p. 67-69)
Like I said, it’s preposterous.
It’s also obnoxious and abusive. But they find women who need the money to play these roles, so off we go. Sigh.
The cast of characters is a jumble. The main narrator is a very messed up woman, though the mess is so extravagant it’s ridiculous. Her background is an insulting stereotype, and her ailments are beyond belief. (No wonder her doctors can’t cure her—such ailments could exist only in fiction.)
The villainous rich guy is just as two-dimensional, and also messed up in extravagant and absurd ways. I’m not saying rich sociopaths aren’t screwy, but this guy is screwy in ways that are just insultingly two dimensional.
The characters also include a nasty stereotype of a new age healer, insulting stereotypes of behavioral scientists (as well as a slanderous rendition of how behavioral scientists behave), and, for good measure, an annoying depiction of a “gay personal assistant”. Sigh.
Oh, and there is a weird psychic best friend who disappears without explanation. Something to do with some kind of conspiracy or perhaps she has crossed over into the spirit realm. Don’t ask me, I haven’t a clue.
The crew of experimental girl friends (the actual term used) are surprisingly passive and accepting of this rich guy’s perverted war crime. OK, they need the money. But, really. Who would even consider participating in this deal? It’s nuts. They’re nuts to go along.
The final outcome of the experiment is awful (big surprise there), though it’s a bit difficult to figure out exactly what happened at the end.
The only thing that really rang true throughout is that people will agree to all kinds of bad deals if they are desperate and lonely and the money is good enough. And extremely rich people can manipulate people by throwing around huge mounds of money. Is this supposed to be news to anyone?
What is the point of all this? What is Lacey up to?
I really don’t know.
- Catherine Lacey, The Answers, New York, Macmillan, 2017.
Sunday Book Reviews