Meet Mary. She’s in extreme bodily pain, with neither explanation nor prognosis. She’s got one friend, who is about to leave her life forever. She has no social media, no knowledge of pop culture, and works in invoicing at what must be the last travel agency still operating in New York City. She was born the would-be prophet of a would-be prophet, religious fanatic Merle, who sequestered his wife and child in a theocracy of his own making, located in rural Tennessee. She’s in deep debt, going nowhere fast. Also, Mary isn’t her name.
At the suggestion of her since disappeared best friend, not-Mary turns to alt-alt-medicine Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia, or PAKing, to relieve her physical symptoms. But surprise, surprise—travel agency invoicing doesn’t rake in the dough needed for non-insurance-covered medical procedures, so Mary answers an enigmatic ad on a health-food store bulletin board, and becomes the newest hire in a vain actor-director’s vanity project—the “emotional girlfriend” in the pseudo-scientific “girlfriend experiment.”
Make limerence long lasting, goes the logline for Kurt Sky’s newest preoccupation—hiring separate women to fulfill a taxonomy of his relational needs. Kurt wants to know how to manufacture intimacy, or rather, how to treat being in love not as something one is, but as something a team of paid women perform.
The sophomore novel to Lacey’s divisive cult-favorite Nobody is Ever Missing, The Answers is a series of structural back-flips and grid-eschewing plot alleys, exhilarating for fans of genre-bending and cerebral lyricism. What Lacey once achieved on the sentence level in Nobody is Ever Missing, she translates to the structural level in The Answers. This is straight-up plot inhabits slightly off-beat form—in the style of Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus, or Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies, with a bit of the bitter satirical twist in Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods and the lyric essayistic interiority of Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation.
The Answers is a story which seems at first to interrogate the fallacy of a civilized world’s pretensions—to be hired to listen to a famous actor-director describe his craving to be truly witnessed, one must possess an “ivy degree, CPR training, spotless mental health record, knowledge of foreign affairs, strong communication skills, and—above all: discretion.” Similarly, in curing her body of its mystery incapacitations, a litany of (psychosomatic?) agonies, PAKing specialist (read: wizard Rolfer) and professional weirdo Ed informs Mary he must have unlimited access to and knowledge of her pneuma (life force) and all psychic cords which might interfere with their body work together.
The temptation to unlock The Answers with this interpretive key is underscored by the luminous small ironies that spice each narrative turn. Internal directives, or electromagnetic pulses designed to prompt emotional and physical responses and administered to the hired girlfriends by a hidden team of scientists, are quite literally external directives. They may stem from a button being pushed, but this time, the button is an actual button, and the pusher isn’t present, he’s a guy in a lab coat in another room. During their first “relational experiment”, or date, Kurt ferries Mary to a restaurant that is the only establishment in existence to have scored a Michelin star without serving food. In one particularly searing moment, Kurt Sky’s haughty sophisticate and lovelorn personal assistant concedes that Mary is not like the other girls. She is not “fake and weird” but “almost totally unpretentious.”
Well, the reader may well think, at least one of them is.
Of course, reading The Answers for the answers, or only one corresponding thematic key, is about as rudimentary as referring to a woman who yells at you for money as your “anger girlfriend”. This is a book rich with thought, asking so much more than any of us have yet to answer. How does one live in a world bereft of an “obvious god”? Is romantic partnership an escape hatch from having to wake up every day the same single solitary person? And how actionable, actually, is this love we’re all pining for? In one contemplative flight, Lacey actually asks herself questions in such a free-flowing way, though the effect is more of a small voice wondering if anyone else has ever felt the way she does than of a classroom loud with opinion, trying to get the last word in in a public debate.
Of all the thematic strains straining to be acknowledged in Lacey’s layered consideration, my personal favorite is the way in which her tweaked dystopia crystallizes a lived reality—the way in which the late patriarchy continues to take advantage of women by renting them out for emotional labor, presuming their consent, and most of all, by constantly looking at them, in some fetishizing and infantilizing leer. Ask Ashley, the “anger girlfriend”, what I’m talking about. “Boys grew up to be men,” she ponders, regarding the older man who is hitting on her just minutes after she was sexually assaulted, “but girls just stayed girls as long as the whole world continued to treat them this way, liabilities, precious objects, things to be protected or told what to do.”
Indeed, for juvenile narcissist-cum-artiste-célébrité Kurt Sky, linguistic development seems stuck in Kristeva’s thetic phase, of psychoanalytic fame. Just as a dog who goes “woof, woof” is thereafter a “woof, woof” to the child entering into a signifying—or naming—system of identification, a woman listening to him talk about the great wound of his commercial success is an “emotional girlfriend,” distinct from his “maternal,” “mundanity,” “anger,” and “sleep” girlfriends only by those impulses her presence allows him to exorcise.
Same goes for the crystal chanting Ed, or the rifle-toting Merle. When refused a facet of their interactional fantasy, each is only too happy to orphan Mary. These are men who will only engage with others if and when the terms are their own.
It is with great effort that I resist spoiling the ending in the review, which should be understood as a testament to its analytic power. The Answers goes out both loud and soft, leaving what else? Quiet, so we can think.
Sonia Feigelson is a NYC-based writer and actress. Her work can be seen in or is forthcoming from The Los Angeles Review, Whiskey Island, Split Lip Magazine, Two Serious Ladies, and Burrow Press Review, among others. She was a 2010 recipient of the Memoir award from Random House Creative Writing Competition. Most recently, she was awarded third prize in Glimmer Train's Short Story Award for New Writers and long-listed for the 2016 Cosmonauts Avenue Fiction Prize.