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book review

Story of girlfriend for hire explores oddness of love and life

“I had the feeling that I was a stranger living as a stranger in a stranger’s body in yet another stranger’s home.” This sentence comes from Catherine Lacey’s new novel, “The Answers,’’ though it just as easily could have come from her singular, brilliant, and strange 2014 debut “Nobody Is Ever Missing.’’

In the world of Lacey’s two novels, the self is fundamentally strange — strange to others and strange to itself, strange in its outward, dramatic actions and strange in its inner, flickering movements. Her characters do things they don’t expect to do and think things they don’t want to think. They lack the consistency of action and affect we expect from fiction — which is to say, they possess the inconsistency of real, rather than fictive, people. The self is, to quote “Nobody Is Ever Missing,’’ “ungotten or forgotten or not getting it.”


The strangeness of “Nobody Is Ever Missing’’ was partly formal — it’s almost entirely plotless — but largely psychological, with the narrator displaying an odd, compelling mind and an even odder, more compelling voice. In “The Answers,’’ the strangeness is louder, announced in the novel’s very premise, which takes millennial concerns (debt, unfulfilling work) and places them in a quasi-science-fiction context.

Mary Parsons is 30, Columbia-educated, and working at a New York travel agency — not in the front as an agent but “in the fluorescent-lit, low-ceilinged back part of the office, sending e-mails to people who owed us money and excuses to people whom we owed money.” She’s also sick and doesn’t know why. As her symptoms pile up — back pain, headaches, a cracked rib — so too do her various doctors’ excuses: “One doctor said, That’s just bodies for you, sighed, and clapped my shoulder, as if we were all in on the joke.” Then, she discovers an alternative treatment called PAKing. This stands for Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia, and the actual treatment — strange chants, unexplained gaps in memory, much talk of auras and much removing of clothing — is just as weird and quietly menacing, as it sounds. (In both novels, Lacey makes us feel the constant, low-level threat of violence under which women live.)


The treatment is effective but pricey, so Mary answers a job ad on a bulletin board. The novel’s weirdness then gets squared: to pay for her strange treatment, Mary agrees to take part in something called the Girlfriend Experiment. A famous actor/filmmaker named Kurt, with a team of researchers, has decided to split up the various aspects of a loving relationship to various women. Among others, there’s the Intellectual Girlfriend, to whom Kurt mansplains “his theory of the relationship between the creative and romantic”; there’s the Maternal Girlfriend, who buys the groceries and waters the plants; and there’s the Emotional Girlfriend. That’s Mary’s gig.

Each girlfriend has a script, certain things that should be said and done and others that are forbidden. They’re also extremely remunerative. One other twist to an already twisted experiment: The girlfriends have sensors attached to their bodies, offering the researchers constant neurobiological feedback, everything “tracked, recorded, and archived.” Kurt hopes to get a perfectly complete, if perfectly inauthentic, love; the scientists hope to understand what happens to the body when it’s in love — and, perhaps, to gain the ability to create love by manipulating neurotransmitters.


Such an inventive setup isn’t merely an excuse for Lacey to show off her considerable inventiveness. It also allows her to dig into some fertile philosophical ground, raising questions to which the novel, against its title and like all good art, offers no final answers: Is love merely a script, provided to us by biology and culture, that we follow unthinkingly? Or is it the most singular experience we ever have? Or is it somehow both? (Roland Barthes raised such questions in “A Lover’s Discourse,’’ and that text makes a cheeky appearance in “The Answers.’’)

All too often books with a killer premise languish at the level of the sentence, where great fiction really lives. “The Answers’’ succeeds at this level, too. Here is Lacey on a hipster café: “A little dish . . . cost sixteen dollars to account for carbon offsets and living wages, which made it more than organic, they said — this fruit salad was ethical.” And on the uncanny beauty of celebrities: “his face was so symmetrical it almost called his humanity into question.”

Late in the novel, Mary thinks, “[B]y enacting the evidence of love she had noticed some amount of strangeness in her. She might have loved the strangeness, she thought, and that might have been enough.” Love is a strange, strange thing, and so is the self. No one in contemporary fiction does a better job of showing us these facts than Catherine Lacey.


By Catherine Lacey


Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 294 pp., $26

Anthony Domestico, an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, has a book on poetry and theology forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.