Summertime reading catch-up: Catherine Lacey’s ‘The Answers’

Catherine Lacey’s prose is stirringly (sometimes hauntingly) precise. The novel is composed of dense passages plunging into thought spirals, and the complexity with which Lacey renders the psychology of her characters is astounding. Her latest novel, The Answers, is at once a fascinating character study and a sharply insightful examination of relationships and connections, wrapped in a setup both frightening and hilarious.

At the heart of The Answers is Mary. Raised in seclusion by her parents, Mary has lived most of her life cut off from the world. Now in the city, Mary is suffering from the trauma of a sexual assault, as well as a host of mystery ailments that doctors have been unable to explain. The spiritualistic Chandra, Mary’s only friend, recommends a radical holistic therapy called PAKing. The mysterious new-agey therapy is performed by Ed, whose name is hilariously unindicative of his shaman-like character. Mary is skeptical of the process, but PAKing begins to have a profound effect on her, providing her with the first traces of relief she’s felt in months.

Desperate to continue PAKing despite its high cost, Mary looks for sources of supplemental income, leading her to a mysterious series of odd interviews and tests with the secretive Matheson. Matheson ultimately informs Mary that he works for Kurt Sky, a famous actor, and Mary has been selected to take part in Kurt’s “girlfriend experiment,” playing the role of the “emotional girlfriend.” Mary’s role entails listening to Kurt’s deepest sorrows and most vulnerable confessions, responding according to instructions dictating her facial expressions and gestures of support.

Lacey has loads of fun with this concept, drawing humor out of it in continuously new ways while skillfully balancing absurd and philosophical elements. Lacey divides the novel into different sections dipping into various characters’ heads, mainly alternating between the perspectives of Mary, Kurt, Matheson, and Ashley, a boxer hired to play Kurt’s “anger girlfriend.” Much of the psychological tension focuses on the characters’ true feelings, with Mary frequently questioning the authenticity of her emotions. This is further played with by the “research division,” the quiet team of scientists pulling the experiment’s strings. The research division uses the experiment (which they perceive as Kurt’s vanity project) as a means of testing out “internal directives,” through which they attempt to produce certain emotions in the experiment’s participants.

From Kurt’s perspective, the girlfriend experiment seems to be an attempt to crack a sort of code for love, to find a formula for producing its effects without the risk of fallout. Mary is more okay with love and the mystery of its unpredictable stability. While on ecstasy with Kurt, she delivers a memorable line: “Love is a compromise for only getting to be one person.” Lacey explores the healing power of escaping the trappings of our individual consciousness through Mary’s PAKing sessions, during which she often loses track of time as well as herself, her energy seemingly blending with Ed’s and soothing her pain.

Ultimately, The Answers doesn’t seek to provide any. Rather, it’s steeped in the potential to instigate reflection and may cause readers to experience some thought spirals of their own.