THE ANSWERS

Catherine Lacey

An urgent, propulsive novel about a woman learning to negotiate her ailment and its various aftereffects via the simulacrum of a perfect romantic relationship, written by one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists

Mary Parsons is broke. Dead broke, really: between an onslaught of medical bills and a mountain of credit card debt, she has been pushed to the brink. Hounded by bill collectors and still plagued by the painful and bizarre symptoms that doctors couldn’t diagnose, Mary seeks relief from a holistic treatment called Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia—PAKing, for short. Miraculously, it works. But PAKing is prohibitively expensive.

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An urgent, propulsive novel about a woman learning to negotiate her ailment and its various aftereffects via the simulacrum of a perfect romantic relationship, written by one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists

Mary Parsons is broke. Dead broke, really: between an onslaught of medical bills and a mountain of credit card debt, she has been pushed to the brink. Hounded by bill collectors and still plagued by the painful and bizarre symptoms that doctors couldn’t diagnose, Mary seeks relief from a holistic treatment called Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia—PAKing, for short. Miraculously, it works. But PAKing is prohibitively expensive. Like so many young adults trying to make ends meet in New York City, Mary scours Craigslist and bulletin boards for a second job, and eventually lands an interview for a high-paying gig that’s even stranger than her symptoms or the New Agey PAKing.

Mary’s new job title is Emotional Girlfriend in the “Girlfriend Experiment”—the brainchild of a wealthy and infamous actor, Kurt Sky, who has hired a team of biotech researchers to solve the problem of how to build and maintain the perfect romantic relationship, casting himself as the experiment’s only constant. Around Kurt, several women orbit as his girlfriends with specific functions. There’s a Maternal Girlfriend who folds his laundry, an Anger Girlfriend who fights with him, a Mundanity Girlfriend who just hangs around his loft, and a whole team of girlfriends to take care of Intimacy. With so little to lose, Mary falls headfirst into Kurt’s messy, ego-driven simulacrum of human connection.

Told in Catherine Lacey’s signature spiraling, hypnotic prose, The Answers is both a mesmerizing dive into the depths of one woman’s psyche and a critical look at the conventions and institutions that infiltrate our most personal, private moments. As Mary struggles to understand herself—her body, her city, the trials of her past, the uncertainty of her future—the reader must confront the impossible questions that fuel Catherine Lacey’s work: How do you measure love? Can you truly know someone else? Do we even know ourselves? And listen for Lacey’s uncanny answers.

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  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Hardcover
  • June 2017
  • 304 Pages
  • 9780374100261

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$26.00

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About Catherine Lacey

Catherine Lacey is the author of Nobody Is Ever Missing, winner of a 2016 Whiting Award and finalist for the Young Lion’s Fiction Award. Her essays and fiction have been published widely and translated into Italian, French, Dutch, Spanish and German. She was born in Mississippi and is based in Chicago.

Author Website

Praise

Named one of 2017’s Most Anticipated Books by Huffington Post, Nylon, Elle, Buzzfeed and Chicago Reader
Los Angeles Times “Faces to Watch” in 2017

“Remarkable . . . Lacey displays an exceptional ability to articulate the elusiveness of knowing others, as well as the desire to find meaning and trust within.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Startling and stunning and compulsively strange, Lacey’s sophomore novel is a haunting investigation into the nature of love . . . With otherworldly precision and subtle wit, Lacey creates a gently surreal dreamscape that’s both intoxicating and profound. A singular novel; as unexpected as it is rich.”Kirkus (starred review)

“Catherine Lacey is one of the most intelligent and brittle and funny writers of her generation. In The Answers, she builds—out of the raw stuff of bewilderment and absence—a soaring, heartbreaking work that’s just on the right side of being nearly too beautiful to bear.”Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies

Discussion Questions

1. The main character in The Answers is Mary Parsons, a young woman with a mysterious ailment who accepts a unique job offer in order to pay for the only therapy that helps her feel better. Who is Mary? What are the events that have shaped her life? What does she mean when she says in the opening of the book, “There was at least one morning I was certain, though only for a few hours, that everything that could ever really happen to me had already happened to me”?

2. Many of the characters in The Answers have experienced trauma that has interfered with their emotional growth and sense of identity. Mary, in particular, bears physical and psychic wounds. What might be the cause of Mary’s pain? Why does PAKing help her? What have other characters experienced and how were they harmed? How have they attempted to heal?

3. What does Mary love about travel? Why, at the end of the book, has she become someone who hardly ever leaves her apartment? How does this change in Mary’s behavior illuminate the themes of identity, anonymity, and celebrity that run through the book?

4. What is the objective of the Girlfriend Experiment (the “GX”)? Why is Mary hired as the Emotional Girlfriend? What roles do the other Girlfriends play? How is each of them qualified? Why does the Experiment include an Anger Girlfriend?

5. Ironically, there are more questions than answers in The Answers. Mary says, “Sometimes it seems all I have are questions, that I will ask the same ones all my life.” What are the big questions posed in the book? How do Mary, Kurt, Chandra, and others attempt to find answers?

6. Mary has had one serious relationship in her life—with a man named Paul. Shortly before going to work for the GX, she spends a day reflecting on their year together. Does she come to terms with her feelings for him as the GX progresses? Who else does Mary care about? Does she gain deeper insight into her feelings for them?

7. There are many possible reasons why Kurt Sky might be involved with the GX—to achieve a creative breakthrough, to learn how to love and be loved, to develop a product that will increase his wealth and fame. What is Kurt’s motivation? Does this change as the GX progresses?

8. What is limerence? With their sensors and Relational Experiments, what does the Research Division learn about people in love? What do they miss? Why do they decide Mary is an unsatisfactory subject?

9. After three months on the job, Mary is required to tell Kurt that she loves him (p. 217). He replies, “I love you, too.” Is there evidence that his feelings are genuine? Chapter 22 of Part Two is made up almost entirely of questions about love. It ends with the speaker wondering, “How to best love?” What are some of the ways love is defined? By Mary and Paul? By Kurt and Alexi? By Ashley?

10. The Girlfriends are hired to be part of a team. Each woman is assigned a specific role, which combined are meant to simulate all the facets of a romantic relationship. In the onboarding meeting, Matheson informs them that the ultimate objective of the GX is “to devise a scientifically proven system for making human pair bonding behavior more perfect and satisfying . . .” (p. 110). Do the roles chosen for the Girlfriends accurately represent interactions between real partners? Are there any roles you would add or remove? If this had been a Boyfriend Experiment, how might the roles have been different?

11. Why has Kurt not been able to finish his film The Walk? Why does he want Mary in the editing room? As she sits with Kurt while he works, what is the difference between how she is required to behave and how she really feels? Are his feelings for her genuine or is he under the influence of an Internal Directive from the Research Division?

12. Are the Relational Experiments realistic approximations of how people in love behave? What effect does the Personal History and Opinion Sharing Experiment have on Kurt and Mary? Why does Kurt create an experiment that seems designed to hurt the members of the Intimacy Team?

13. What happens between Kurt and Mary the night they get high and go out to a street fair? Are their behavior and feelings more genuine under the influence of the drug? How does this public appearance compare to the Gala?

14. The Answers is about love and identity. It is also about escape. Mary’s story can be read as a series of escapes, beginning in adolescence when her aunt Clara removes her from her father’s care and, according to Mary, saves her life. Who and what else does Mary escape from and how is she changed each time? What are other instances of escape or attempted escape? What is Kurt trying to escape?

15. Mary tells Kurt, “Love is a compromise for only getting to be one person” (p. 228). Why does Kurt make her repeat this so he can record it? What else does Mary do or say that influences the development of Identity Distance Therapy and the final version of The Walk? Is she fairly compensated for her contributions? Has she been helped or harmed by her work for the GX?

Excerpt

One

I’d run out of options. That’s how these things usually happen, how a person ends up placing all her last hopes on a stranger, hoping that whatever that stranger might do to her would be the thing she needed done to her.

For so long I had been a person who needed other people to do things to me, and for so long no one had done the right thing to me, but already I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s one of my problems, I’m told, getting ahead of myself, so I’ve been trying to find a way to get behind myself, to be slow and quiet with myself like Ed used to be. But of course I can’t quite make it work, can’t be exactly who Ed was to me.

There are some things that only other people can do to you.

Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia, PAKing—what Ed does to people—requires one person to know and another person (me, in this case) to lie there, not-knowing. In fact, I still do not know what Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia really is, just that it made me (or seemed to have made me) well again. During our sessions Ed sometimes hovered his hands over my body, chanting or humming or silent while he supposedly moved or rearranged or healed invisible parts of me. He put stones and crystals on my face, my legs, sometimes pressing or twisting some part of my body in painfully pleasurable ways, and though I didn’t understand how any of this could remove the various sicknesses from my body, I couldn’t argue with relief.

I’d spent a year suffering undiagnosable illnesses in almost every part of me, but after only one session with Ed, just ninety minutes during which he barely touched me, I could almost forget I was a body. Such a luxury it was, to not be overwhelmed by decay.

Chandra had suggested PAKing, called it feng shui for the energetic body, guerrilla warfare against negative vibes, and though I was sometimes skeptical of Chandra’s talk of vibes, this time I had to believe her. I’d been ill so long that I’d almost lost the belief I could be well again and I was afraid of what might replace that belief if it disappeared completely.

Technically, Chandra explained, PAKing is a form of neuro-physio-chi bodywork, a relatively obscure technique either on the outskirts of the forefront or the outskirts of the outskirts, depending on who you ask.

The problem was, as always, an invisible one. The problem was money.

I needed a minimum of thirty-five PAKing sessions, at $225 each, to complete a PAK series, which meant a complete treatment would cost me the same as a half-year’s rent on that poorly lit and irregularly shaped one-bedroom I’d had for many years (not because it suited me—I detested it—but because everyone said it was a steal, too good to let go). And even though my paycheck from the travel agency was decent, the monthly credit card minimums, student loan payments, and last year’s onslaught of medical bills were all reducing my bank account to cents or negatives each month, while the debt always seemed to grow.

One dire morning, starving and cashless, I ate the last of my pantry for breakfast (slightly expired anchovies mixed into a tiny can of tomato paste) and I often Hare-Krishna’d for dinner, leaving my shoes and dignity at the door to praise Krishna (the god, as far as I could tell, of cafeteria-grade vegetarian fare and manic chanting). By the fourth or fifth Love Feast, white tilaka greased on my brow, pasta wiggling around the metal plate as if independently animate, I knew that the boundless love of Krishna would never be enough for me—no matter how hungry or broke or confused I became. It was a few days later that answering that ad for an income-generating experience tacked to a bulletin board at a health food store seemed like my only real option, that somehow giving away the dregs of my life might be the best way to get a real one back.

For a year I’d had no life, just symptoms. Mundane ones at first—tenacious headaches, back pain, a constantly upset stomach—but over months they became increasingly strange. Persistent dry mouth and a numb tongue. A full-body rash. My legs kept falling asleep, stranding me at the office or in a bath or at a bus stop as the M5 came and went, came and went. At some point I somehow cracked a rib in my sleep. These strange lumps began to rise and fall on my skin, like turtle heads surfacing and sinking in a pond. I could only sleep three or four hours a night, so I tried to nap through my lunch hour, forehead to desk, on the days I didn’t have a doctor’s appointment. I avoided mirrors and eye contact. I stopped making plans more than a week away.

There were blood tests and more blood tests, CAT scans and biopsies. There were seven specialists, three gynos, five GPs, a psychiatrist, and one grope-y chiropractor. Chandra took me to a celebrity acupuncturist, a spiritual surgeon, and a guy who sold stinking powders in the back room of a Chinatown fishmonger. There were checkups and follow-ups and throw-ups and so on.

It’s just stress, someone said, but they couldn’t rule out cancer or a rare autoimmune disorder or a psychic attack or pure neurosis, all in my head—just don’t worry so muchtry not to think about it.

One doctor said, That’s just bodies for you, sighed, and clapped my shoulder, as if we were all in on the joke.

But I didn’t want a punch line. I wanted an explanation. I hesitated at storefronts for palm readers and psychics. I let Chandra do my tarot a few times but the news was always bad—swords and daggers and demons and grim reapers. I’m new at this, she said, though I knew she wasn’t. I held my spasming legs to my chest, chin to knees, and felt like a child, dwarfed by everything I didn’t know.

I came close to praying a few times, but everything felt unanswered enough and I didn’t want another frame for the silence.

Something in the genes or a consequence of ill choices, one might rationalize, but it could have just been a hefty stroke of bad luck—senseless, or a karmic bitch slap—somehow earned. My parents would have said it was just a part of His plan, but to them, of course, everything was. How someone wants to explain catastrophe isn’t important—that’s what I know now. When shit happens, it doesn’t really matter what asshole is responsible.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Catherine Lacey