When an author’s life aligns with the characters they create it feels personal. That’s how it felt reading Catherine Lacey’s first book Nobody is Ever Missing, where her own escape from New York to New Zealand gave ammunition to the novel. The Answers takes a step outside of that—moving from one personal crisis to the third person views of many. Readers start with Mary Parsons, whose mounting health issues and debt have forced her to take a lucrative job in a “Girlfriend Experiment.” She is hired by actor Kurt Sky as his Emotional Girlfriend, among a team of others (his Anger Girlfriend, Maternal Girlfriend, Mundane Girlfriend, and Intimacy Girlfriends). As you can imagine, it’s a complicated job.
Knowing the premise, I imagined the story would feel outlandish, only to be freaked out by how real the experiment felt. It was terrifyingly possible. At a recent Greenlight Bookstore reading in Brooklyn, Lacey expressed her fascination with inflating ordinary happenings for the novel—just to see how far she could push them. It’s like a print that’s been blown up several times to show you something—the only way to expose the bigger picture is to look close at a distorted piece of the world. With this, Lacey addresses the bleak business of wellness, dating, celebrity culture, and the stakes of working in a sharing economy. In all honesty, I found myself googling “girlfriend experiment psychology” to make sure (despite the obvious ethics violations) that it wasn’t real.
Catherine Lacey is the 2016 recipient of the Whiting Award and her story collection Certain American States is set to publish sometime next year. I spoke with Lacey about emotionally taxing jobs, the uncertainty of illness, and what advice she has for the screw-ups of the world.
I love the premise of this book—what inspired the dystopian Girlfriend Experiment?
The book actually began with Mary and all her troubles; eventually I had written her into a situation where her only option was to accept an absurd, emotionally intense job. At that point I had already begun to imagine a wealthy, strange man running something like a girlfriend experiment, but I hadn’t written anything about it yet. Mary’s perspective is what made the GX possible to conceive. However, I never intended to write a dystopic book and I am not entirely convinced I have done so. It seems to me that most wealthy people have always and will always use whatever money, access, or fame they may have to gain as much affection, attention and comfort they possibly can.
In the beginning, Mary says: “For a year I’d had no life, just symptoms.” In part because doctors don’t know how to explain her illness. Her experience made me think of Leslie Jamison’s essay “The Devil’s Bait” on Morgellons Disease—on what it’s like when no one believes your pain and you go to great lengths to seek your own treatment. I know so many people who have dealt with different versions of this. What made you want to write about it?
I have never been as afflicted as Mary is in this book but I have, like everyone, been ill and uncertain about what the culprit of my suffering was. Being sick tends to make me feel like a child, brings me back to that sort of helplessness and wonder and fear that we sometimes forget as adults. We all live at the mercy of our bodies, so that alone is enough inspiration for me.
The first thing Mary explains to readers is: “I’d run out of options. That’s how these things usually happen.” In that some jobs choose you before you really know what you’re getting into. It speaks to a very specific place in someone’s life. What drew you to that situation?
In some ways, I became a novelist this way. I didn’t think I could write a novel until I did and I wasn’t sure I had a second one in me until I had already written it and the same has been true for the third. I’m much happier when I presume very little, when I am uncertain and a little lost. I can see the world more clearly from a place of confusion rather than one of certainty.
Mary’s job title is Emotional Girlfriend, but she could just as easily fill the role of “Empathetic Girlfriend.” Her job title has more to do with the support she gives Kurt by listening and being there for him than any emotion she expresses. It’s interesting, because Ashley, the Anger Girlfriend’s role, is something she plays out, rather than a quality that is reflected back by Kurt. How did you decide to shape the protocols for each Girlfriend’s role?
Oh, yes—the Emotional Girlfriend is more of a receptacle for Kurt’s feelings than anything else. It shows the experiment has a narrow, flawed idea of what emotion really is, of course. I wanted the conceit of the experiment to be both earnest and short-sighted. It’s interesting that you point out how active Ashley’s role is when compared to Mary’s. I suppose I just wasn’t interested in Kurt getting to initiate any sort of attack any of the women. Kurt, in wielding his authority, always wants the easier job in any of the experiments. It’s much easier for Kurt to receive someone’s anger rather than express his own. It’s easier for him to share his feelings and thoughts than listen to someone.
So readers start with Mary’s first person perspective, and then pan out to the many third person perspectives, before returning back to Mary. What made you decide on shifting the point of view?
I saw the experiment as this vast room that needed to be entered and exited, but it was too much territory for one set of eyes. At the same time, the story belongs for the most part to Mary. Maybe that’s why a shifting first person didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t want Mary to get lost in a chorus of other voices but I also couldn’t let the GX be limited by what she had access to seeing. Mary is often at the behest of systems she doesn’t understand (financial institutions, love, new york city, the medical world, the GX) but that doesn’t mean the reader needs to be in the dark of how the experiment around her is functioning.
Which girlfriend were you the most entertained by writing?
I don’t really feel entertained by writing anything, though there are some characters that follow me around more than others. Ashley was like this. I started going to a boxing gym as research for her and that was enjoyable.
“Love is a compromise for only getting to be one person” is a line that reoccurs in the novel. What did you mean by it? How did that line come to you?
Some say there are no “answers” in this book, and though I don’t totally disagree, I think this line may be the closest thing the book has to an answer. The finality of only getting to be one person, only getting to lead one life—this horrifies me and love has always been (for me) a relief from this sad fact. The line occurred to me while I was on MDMA.
My friends who use Tinder and OkCupid are always complaining that dates feel like going on interviews—meeting person after person and trying to perform as someone worthwhile. More and more, dating culture seems to be like a fulfillment game (example: Does this person’s profile meet my needs? If so, swipe right). Did this have any influence on the book?
There is a great deal of cruelty and theater in courtship that is not at all particular to the contemporary moment. Worse than the small discomforts of a first date, I think, is the period of months or longer in which one person or both people are trying to convince the other that they’re worth the time and effort a committed relationship would demand of them. I think this coldness partially arises out of a culture in which accomplishment, money, and security are prized more than the emotional complexity and depth of a human life. This means evaluating a potential partner is more like evaluating a stock than reacting to a feeling—yet at the same time we cannot divorce emotion from the equation entirely, so it’s a big fucking mess. It’s important to realize, I think, that whatever technology we have reflects the desires of a population more than it controls them.
I read once in an interview that you sympathize most with characters who are fuck-ups—people you see failing in stories and learning from those worst moments. Kurt Sky is such an asshole in this novel, but he is also such a failure at love. You almost feel bad for him. (Almost.) Is that part of what made writing his character easier?
Not necessarily easier, but it did make writing him and thinking about him more interesting to me, which is all I ever want.
Mary takes the job to pay off her debt, but also to afford a New-Agey treatment called “PAK-ing” that promises a cure for her undiagnosable illness and pain. Her healer, Ed, reads as the antithesis to Kurt Sky. There’s something magical about him in the book. But both men serve as teachers to her in the book—did you intend for things to go that way?
When I started writing Ed, I wasn’t sure what exactly his role would be in the novel, but the story ended up needing a character in just the way that he could provide. I wanted him to be impossible to understand, but also a relief.
Do you have any advice for the screw-ups of the world? For people who are still figuring life out?
Whatever you do, don’t figure ‘it’ out! Then you’ll just be another asshole. Better to be a fuck-up than an asshole.
Author photo: Willy Somma