Books

“The Bachelor” Meets “The Handmaid’s Tale” in Catherine Lacey’s New Novel

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Several years ago, Catherine Lacey found herself seeking out alternative treatments to untangle the scoliosis wrenching her body. A Southerner living in New York, she turned to “rolfing,” a kind of massage bodywork often combined with energy healing. Whatever magic the therapist worked on her, it unlocked something, and the mystery of the experience — located somewhere between medicine and faith, science and spirituality — became the genesis of her dazzling new novel, The Answers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26). “I found that there is some other state, and feeling, that come up,” says Lacey. “But it’s hard to know — and it’s not really important to know — whether it’s causal or by suggestion.”

Lacey is content with unknowns. Having grown up in an environment of religious certainties, she has chosen unknowns, and her book explores them in sleek, polished prose — she writes about the tender unknowns of the body, of love; the unknowns that come from leaving a religion but still feeling tied to a spiritual state. One of the first things critics like to say about Lacey is how deftly her two novels dodge genre: Despite their cool-headed observations, they’re certainly not realist, but neither are they exactly science fiction. They can read traditionally, even while pinging experimentally between first and third person and multiple characters’ points of view. Improbable events happen, but they so cleverly hew to the present, and are so confidently told, that they never feel very improbable. If a new genre existed, one that married the meditative powers of Rachel Cusk with, say, the existential invention of The Truman Show, then perhaps Lacey’s writing is something like that.

Lacey grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, where her father ran the Tupelo Hardware Company and her grandfather sold Elvis Presley his first guitar. Lacey worked in the store, and she can credibly wax poetic about the woolly smell of wood shavings, the sharpness of paint. Later, she moved to Tennessee for high school and New Orleans for college. She received her MFA at Columbia University, where she studied under the writer Heidi Julavits, worked as a personal chef (“a luxury employee”), and helped start 3B, a bed-and-breakfast cooperative in Downtown Brooklyn. She taught for a stint in Montana and, following her MFA graduation, hitchhiked across New Zealand, where she began writing her debut novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing. She’s fit a lot of life into her thirty-two years.

These details, in particular those that relate to her early biography, are easy to fixate on, especially since The Answers features a protagonist who grew up in a religious home in the South. But Lacey is weary of the labored confusion between a writer who is interested in something and a writer who is something. Several years ago, reacting in part to a reporter who had doggedly tried to draw parallels between Lacey and her depressed character, she wrote an essay, “The Need to Disappear,” for BuzzFeed, stating that this assumption about writers “is especially true of those who dare to write in first-person voice, and extra extra true, it seems to me, if you’re a woman — as if all we can birth is more of ourselves.” This was 2014: She was twenty-nine and had just published Nobody Is Ever Missing to critical acclaim. Dwight Garner called her writing “dreamy and fierce at the same time” in the New York Times, and the New Yorker named it as one of the best books of the year.

In Nobody Is Ever Missing, a grieving woman named Elyria forces herself out of the stock passivity of her Manhattan life and disappears to backpack New Zealand. It’s an elegant and deeply introspective novel, moved less by plot than by long, searching sentences that push you gently, and possibly in one sitting, toward the last page. It gained a cult following.

Like Lacey’s debut, The Answers is about a woman, a deep thinker who takes the world in from a wary distance: Mary Parsons, a shadowy thirty-year-old accountant raised in Tennessee as a shut-in by a religious zealot. Now in New York, she suffers a painful alienation from her body that drives her to seek expensive treatment (inspired by Lacey’s “rolfing” experience) from a New Age–y service called PAKing, or Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia — a service that sounds, as do many things in the novel, like a sly nod either to Scientology or to some unmarked yoga studio in Park Slope.

To help pay off her medical debts, Mary answers an ad that calls for an “Ivy degree, CPR training, [and a] spotless mental health record.” The ad is put out by a research firm hiring a group of neurobiologically suited girlfriends for Kurt Sky, an emotionally tedious mega-celebrity whose “face was so symmetrical it almost called his humanity into question.” Mary is assigned the role of Emotional Girlfriend, made to sign a NDA, and drawn into a Relational Experiment, as it’s called, which features an extensive cast of sweethearts, including an Anger Girlfriend, a Maternal Girlfriend, and a Mundanity Girlfriend (who has the most enviable role: lounging sleepily on couches, hair knotted into a messy top bun).

“Dating dystopia” is at least one genre that’s been applied, so far, to The Answers. The machinery of the experiment features a bunch of bustling white lab coats, but the premise still strikes an unnerving number of chords with anyone who has tunneled through the heart of a data-harvesting dating app. And even if you’ve managed to sidestep that personal dystopia, you’ve no doubt seen a plucky little ABC show called The Bachelor.

“What if there were Zipcar versions of relationships, where there were a series of partners that could be booked for the day, based on your need?” asks Lacey. “It sounds grotesque, right? But maybe it’s not so far off from what people want, or from what people think they want.”

But Lacey, who recently moved to Chicago to be with her partner, the poet and novelist Jesse Ball, has never seen The Bachelor, and keeps a cautious distance from the internet. She conceived of the Relational Experiment more as an actual experiment than a direct mirror of the ways we already optimize romance. “How to best love?” Mary wonders in the novel. “How to know anything, for certain, in another’s heart? Such a serious thing we are doing, and no one really knows how to do it.”

The book is, Lacey says, “an ongoing inquiry about what we’re doing here, and what I want to be doing here. Everybody has to answer that. Whether or not you have a religion or some kind of worldview, you still have to struggle with the day-to-day of being a person.”

After all the years of state-hopping, later this year Lacey is returning to Mississippi, where she’ll move into John Grisham’s old house, taking on the yearlong role as the Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss. The residency is a kind of coming-of-age for certain anointed Southern writers: You don’t actually apply for it; writers are elected by committee, and called out of the blue.

There, residents have lots of time to think and write, and Lacey already has several new projects afoot. A collection of short stories, Certain American States, is due out next year. Not that she expects to unravel any of life’s big questions. After all, even The Answers leaves those questions unanswered. Rather, Lacey notes, “it’s about people looking for answers to questions that don’t have answers.”

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