Erotic desire is an unfashionable quality in literary characters of late, and so not a lot of room is left for conventional love stories, though the pressure put on the novel as a result has generated some interesting byproducts: the marriage plot yielding to narratives centered on trauma, friendship, artistic fulfillment, etc. Anxiety about love’s status as a fit subject for a contemporary American novel pervades Catherine Lacey’s sophomore effort, The Answers. Its heroine and sometime narrator, Mary Parsons, is afflicted by chronic pain and crippling credit-card debt. She seeks relief from the former in an elaborate form of one-on-one physical therapy, and to pay for it she enters into an “income-generating experience” — an immersive and lucrative form of affective labor in the hire of a celebrity actor. What used to count as love is split into consumption and work.
Mary is, conveniently, something of a woman without qualities, having been homeschooled until late adolescence, at the behest of her father, Merle, a state-and-corporation-hating off-the-grid libertarian Christian fundamentalist. Her escape from her parents led her first to her aunt Clara’s benign guardianship, then to the bureaucratic trappings of citizenship (birth certificate, driver’s license, passport), then to Columbia University. (One wonders if the products of isolated noninstitutional educations have as easy a time matriculating to elite schools in real life as they seem to have in recent novels.) She’s now 30, with a dead-end job at a travel agency; one close friend, Chandra, her freshman-year roommate; and a crappy Manhattan one-bedroom without much furniture. Mary’s outsider upbringing has left her without knowledge of pop culture: She’s never seen a movie (she once fell asleep when a male classmate tried to get her to watch Citizen Kane), doesn’t know what Us Weekly is, isn’t on Facebook, and doesn’t use a cell phone. In her ruthless self-liberation and her willful ignorance of the world she’s entered, Mary blends cynicism and innocence, the rival spirits that govern The Answers, managed by Lacey to woozy and disquieting effect.
It’s Chandra who, before disappearing mysteriously, introduces Mary to PAKing (Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia), a wellness treatment Lacey keeps tantalizingly vague: It involves contortions in states of various disrobe, loss of consciousness, things that sort of feel like sex but according to Mary barely involve touching, and a perhaps too deep connection in closed-door sessions with Ed, a kind of ultra-yogi given to chanting, humming, and spouting New Age mumbo-jumbo as if both his and Mary’s lives depend on it. But the treatment seems to work, so to pay for 35 sessions at $225 a pop Mary answers a sketchy ad on a bulletin board at a health-food store.
She’s hired on to the Girlfriend Experiment, a project started by Kurt Sky, a movie star around 40 years old out to quantify, through physiological and neurochemical monitoring, the elements of a perfect romantic relationship. The GX is thoroughly compartmentalized: Women are hired to perform the roles of Angry Girlfriend, Maternal Girlfriend, Sleeping Girlfriend, Mundanity Girlfriend, Intellectual Girlfriend, and Emotional Girlfriend, in addition to an Intimacy Team to handle sex. After signing elaborate waivers and nondisclosure agreements and submitting to a background check, Mary comes on as the Emotional Girlfriend, prized by Kurt’s managers because she’s entirely ignorant of his celebrity.
The first third of the novel is narrated by Mary, and outlines her predicament of alienation and penury. Once she’s hired, Lacey switches to an omniscient narration that hops between the heads of the various girlfriends, Kurt, and his PA Matheson, a gay man who’s given over his adult life to Kurt and regards him like a protective mother and a jealous lover. Kurt himself is a careerist narcissist with a dead mother (a knee-jerk source of self-pity), a fairly generic résumé of abandoned relationships (ditto), and a long-gestating unfinished bid to become an auteur called The Walk. Kurt and Mary are ciphers of opposite sorts: one rich, famous, and living in a pleasure dome of a Soho loft; the other poor, without friends and family, in constant pain.
As a character, Mary gets the better of the deal because she has a voice to compensate for her rags-to-rags backstory. Kurt is a hodgepodge of Hollywood clichés dipped in a batter of solipsism. As such, he’s perfectly designed for the elegantly executed plot that drives The Answers, but he’s a drag on the novel when it enters his head. He fires the Intellectual Girlfriend because she shows him he’s shallow and a bit dim. He brings on Mary full-time to double as the Sleeping Girlfriend and stages confrontations between the two of them and Ashley, the Angry Girlfriend, a boxer in training and like Mary a survivor of brutal sexual assault. We learn that Kurt’s tech team has a set of ulterior motives to do with hardware development, and he probably has one of his own, beyond his stated altruistic goal of showing the world the physiological underpinnings of true love.
Just how interested this novel and its author are in love itself is a question that’s hard to answer. Lacey pulls off a diverting and provocative satire, studded with episodes of real gravity, without engaging in slapstick. The ironies are buried deep in the novel’s symmetrical structure and never played for laughs, though there are enough deadpan comic revelations to qualify Lacey, as some critics have already suggested, as an heir to Don DeLillo in White Noise mode. (A nearer precursor is Tom McCarthy’s recursive simulation novel Remainder.) But The Answers spends a lot of time in each character’s head pondering the nature of love and gets clogged up with trite false epiphanies. “Did love have to be declared to exist or was it just as real when it was a silent belief?” Mary wonders about Ed, whom she pays to make her feel better. “It seemed to her that people could call love whatever they wanted, but it was really just a long manipulation, a changing, a willingness to be changed.” She says to Kurt, who pays her to seem like she cares for him: “Love is a compromise for only getting to be one person.” But there aren’t any examples of relationships, present or past, that might qualify as “successful love” in Delmore Schwartz’s ironic phrase: Those that aren’t explicitly transactional either fizzle or devolve into abuse. In the tug-of-war between cynicism and innocence that Lacey stages, cynicism wins in the end. All the innocence she describes along the way suggests she wishes it were otherwise. Don’t we all?