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BOOK REVIEW: The Answers by Catherine Lacey

BOOK REVIEW: The Answers by Catherine Lacey

Granta Books
July 2017
Paperback, $27.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Fiction / Social Commentary

4/10

Mary is out of options. Estranged from her Evangelist family, plagued by debt collectors and beset by chronic pain, Mary signs up for a mysterious job advertised as ‘The Girlfriend Experiment’ (or, The GX). Masterminded by a successful Hollywood actor with a string of failed relationships behind him, The GX seeks to pin down and capture the essence of love before it fades, and to answer the question of why two people, drawn together by forces beyond their control, can wake up one day as strangers to one another.

Mary is hired to play the part of the Emotional Girlfriend, alongside a Maternal Girlfriend, a Mundane Girlfriend, an Angry Girlfriend and, of course, an Intimacy Team. Each woman has her debts and her difficulties, her past loves and her secrets. As Mary and the actor are drawn ever closer together, the nature of the experiment changes, and the Girlfriends find themselves exposed to new perils, foremost among them, love.

 

There’s no denying that Catherine Lacey can string words together in a raw and beautiful way that so very accurately reflects the human condition. Somehow she gets down inside our insecurities and leaves us cold and comforted at the same time.

There are so many ways to live and die, so many ways to tell that same story, over and over, but everyone keeps trying to find a better way to tell it, a more real way to look into someone else’s face to say, I am alive like you, was born without my consent like you, will someday die and be dead in the same way you’ll be dead.

And the idea of a dating experiment designed to uncover from whence the deepest connections come is certainly an intriguing one. Who hasn’t had a relationship end badly? Who hasn’t wondered where it all went wrong? Who hasn’t questioned whether they were more friends or lovers with the person most important in their life?

Was it that simple? That if you sat with someone for long enough, told them enough stories, that if you looked at them and they looked at you, then this feeling could occur? She wasn’t beautiful, or at least not in a way that he found beautiful, but there was, Kurt thought, something beautiful about her. Maybe beauty had been part of the problem all along. So often love began in the visible.

But these are only small elements of the story, and with all the additional elements, there’s far too much going on, and far too little is wrapped up, or even semi-decently explored.

Mary undergoes alternative therapy to try and get rid of her chronic pain (“chronic” pain which seems to only surface when convenient to the story).

There was a memory, slipping from her like a dream at daybreak, of Ed ripping her body apart, of his telling her there was no such thing as anything and that she could destroy and remake herself, destroy and remake herself or just remain destroyed, that there was great power in being destroyed, that her debt meant nothing, her past meant nothing, she was free to live in this world in whatever way she could, that she owed no one anything, that no one owed her anything, that all was uncertain and there was great darkness and great light and no such thing as people.

The experiment introduces something potentially truly terrifying (but which never eventuates in this novel).

To this end we have developed a feature of the sensors called Internal Directives. Instead of merely recording the bio-information of a body wearing the sensors, Internal Directives allow us to transfer information into the body, telling it how to behave, which hormones or neurotransmitters to increase or decrease, shifting the body’s vagal tone, raising or lowering the heart rate, and so forth.

And Mary begins receiving strange emails from her friend who has gone AWOL. Emails sent from a strange address, which seems to not exist whenever Mary tries to respond.

It must be strange to still be alive.
But you’ll soon die the way I did.
Soon, you will see.
It’s almost over. You’re almost here.

Not to mention all the head hopping and, my goodness, all the introspection. I mean, ALL of the introspection. Wondering where your introspection has gone? Lacey’s found it for you.

There are many things examined here, in the way that women are seen as less valuable; that controling and taking advantage of them is seen as standard and acceptable; that women are never allowed to grow up and stop being protected; in the fact that at least two of the four female participants in the study who had a spotlight chapter had been raped or assaulted at some point.

The Answers is a comment on society, rape culture, fame, and on the human condition, and there is plenty here to love. But unfortunately the well-handled elements are drowned out by there being too much else discussed.

Readers are unfortunate enough to get far more detail than needed in some instances, while being kept at arm’s length in others, which lends the book as a whole a feeling of detached oversharing. Perhaps this was an exercise in helping readers see the goings on as Mary herself does, but it also meant the distance between the first 30% and the final 30-40% dragged quite a lot, and the lack of any real resolution is rather frustrating.

BOOK REVIEW: The Answers by Catherine Lacey

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