Catherine Lacey's The Answers: The Stepford Wives meets The Girlfriend Experience
When I first began reading Catherine Lacey’s latest novel, 2017’s The Answers, I was taken aback by the protagonist’s severe, illogical chronic pain and myriad of physical problems (this has nothing to do with the writing of the novel or Lacey’s craft, I was just personally not interested in reading further as I used to know all too well what it was like to be a chronic headache-ridden young woman with neuroses to spare). After I got past the first dozen or so pages of the book, I realized that this was going to be a work with many twists, turns, and—surprise—questions. First the protagonist, Mary (which isn’t her birth name), is almost too ill to function but then she gets better after seeking treatment from a healer called Ed who practices a form of medicine called “PAKing.” After this, she’s in financial trouble due to the expense of the treatments and so, finally, she begins work as an “emotional girlfriend” in a new dating service called the “girlfriend experiment.” If the Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia (PAKing) wasn’t enough, this curated, almost robotic way of finding the perfect mate(s) almost puts the book over the edge when it comes to believability.
All of this seemed very interesting while veering almost too close toward science fiction: even the cover art for Lacey’s book reminded me of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (actually, it reminds me more of Bryan Forbes’ 1975 film version with Katharine Ross and the movie poster that depicts her, literally, as a shattered woman). The cover of Lacey’s book is actually well-done and a joy to look at (when so many books have bland covers) and has a vintage feel to it with the many facets of a woman’s face not quite fitting together. As Mary becomes an “emotional girlfriend” to Kurt Sky (a bored and very famous actor), we are able to see how Lacey crafts carefully layered questions that aren’t so easy to answer. The questions in The Answers deal with love, intimacy, and companionship and they aren’t so cut and dried. As Kurt has a whole slew of girlfriends who fulfill different needs—including a young woman called Ashley who has the task of being the “anger girlfriend” as well as a “mundanity” and “anger girlfriend”—we begin to ask ourselves whether or not one person can truly make another happy.
Lacey seems to be saying something intriguing about, not only relationships but, men specifically. Do men need routine more than women? Do men need a mother more than a lover? Finally, is it possible for one person to embody everything another needs to feel whole in a relationship? According to Lacey, it doesn’t seem plausible for one person to be everything that another needs: this is evident by her clever “girlfriend experiment” idea. We witness Kurt Sky feel something resembling love for Mary, mostly because she grew up in a very sheltered environment and is oblivious to Sky’s movie star fame. This plot point suggests that, in Lacey’s mind, in order to love someone you must know the authentic person, free of pretensions. The whole notion a wealthy celebrity needing many different women to read from a script in order to fulfill his relationship needs is a jab at, not only fame, but the superficial society in which we live where just one partner isn’t enough, greed runs rampant, satisfaction is almost immediate and boredom is the norm.
With the almost dystopian world of dating and love explored by Lacey, I was reminded not only of science fiction but of the dating world right now in the twenty-first century. Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film, The Girlfriend Experience starring adult film star, Sasha Grey immediately came to mind (where an expensive call girl offers the entire girlfriend package, including sex, conversation, and companionship). Lacey’s rich prose and inventive storytelling is reminiscent of past phenomenon in popular culture but, in a way, I think that’s her gift. She knows how to take ideas that are of interest and expand upon them until they become something new altogether. There’s no doubt that Lacey’s The Answers is smart, fresh and even trendy but it also probes what’s at the root of all life: love and sex.
Lacey also delves deeper and poses questions that deal with reality. Mary’s illness may be psychosomatic and her healer, Ed needs access to all her secrets; this aspect of the book deals with privacy and the lack thereof. I don’t think the point of the novel is to provide answers but to reveal just how many questions there are to ponder when it comes to love. I think it’s also important to know what questions need asking and that no inquiry is irrelevant. Maybe there aren’t any correct answers but there are some conclusions that can be made. As Lacey very coolly interrogates with her pen we, as readers, are able to, hopefully, come up with some insight.