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The Answers: A Novel

The Answers: A Novel

Автором Catherine Lacey

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The Answers: A Novel

Автором Catherine Lacey

4/5 (7 оценки)
305 pages
5 hours
Jun 6, 2017




"Like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, [The Answers] is also a novel about a subjugated woman, in this case not to a totalitarian theocracy but to subtler forces its heroine is only beginning to understand and fears she is complicit with." --Dwight Garner, New York Times

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.

Jun 6, 2017

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Catherine Lacey is the author of the novels Nobody Is Ever Missing, The Answers, and Pew, and the short story collection Certain American States. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship. She was a finalist, twice, for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, along with the Dylan Thomas Prize and the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, and was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times, The Believer, and elsewhere. Born in Mississippi, she is based in Chicago.

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The Answers - Catherine Lacey


Part 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.


For five years, I had a life.

My childhood wasn’t my life—maybe it had been Merle’s life, but not mine. And the time I lived with Aunt Clara hadn’t really been a life, more like rehabilitation. And college wasn’t life at all, just a gestational period, four years of warning and training for this life that was coming, that future thing.

My life began on an airplane, the moment we left the ground. We ascended and I wept against Chandra’s shoulder as silently as I could, and when the flight attendant came around, Chandra asked for a cup of hot water, adding her own tea bag and holding it still in the turbulence until it was the right temperature to drink, giving it to me then. She knew so much, knew all the best ways to do things. She unfurled her massive scarf, wrapped us together, and I fell asleep against her shoulder. We woke up as we were landing in London, holding hands in our sleep, and minutes later she guided us through Heathrow, a place she already knew. It wasn’t that she felt like a mother to me, but I was still somehow her child.

It must have been her hundredth trip, though it was my first, a graduation present from her parents, Vivian and Oliver. Viv and Olly, she called them. I’d spent most holidays and long weekends at their place in Montauk all through college since I had nowhere to go. The house was full of expensive things that didn’t really matter to them—chipped antiques, forgotten gadgets, scratched CDs in stacks—and it wasn’t uncommon to find random twenties between sofa cushions or strewn around the kitchen amid magazines and candies from foreign countries. At the dinner table her family spoke loudly with their mouths full and Chandra lovingly argued with her parents about books and art. Everyone made and laughed at jokes I didn’t understand, though I learned to laugh anyway. We all drank wine, even when I was nineteen and a tablespoon of it made me blithe and sleepy.

It was the two-month round-the-world ticket from Viv and Olly that began my years of compulsive travel. I saw the Galápagos birds, cherry blossoms in Japan, Egyptian pyramids, the Catacombs, Burmese snake pagodas, and that eerie neon-teal lake in New Zealand. I loved the leaving, even the 5:00 a.m. flights, silent subway cars rattling through desolate purple mornings, predawn airports filled with limp people. I read somewhere that the first thing you learn when traveling is that you don’t exist—I didn’t want to stop not existing.

At home the debts were always growing. Strangers called at all hours, spoke hatefully about what I owed them. I received serious letters with large bold numbers, each higher than the last. Other envelopes came with new credit cards, new ways out, new trips. I stopped wondering where I might go next but what would happen if I never returned. But I always returned. And each time I hit the tarmac I had this terrible feeling that the trip I’d just taken had never even happened, that I’d spent hundreds for a memory I could barely recall.

*   *   *

The back pain started first, which seemed innocuous enough (didn’t everyone get back pain?), though I was only twenty-five or twenty-six at the time. I blamed the knotty hostel beds and kept traveling beyond my means, though in less adventurous ways after a bout of muscle spasms were so strong they left me stranded on a trail in Abel Tasman for an hour until a group of hikers from Japan carried me out.

A few months later, while fighting off the first in a plague of stomach bugs, the headaches began and with the headaches came the full-body pains, pulsing and huge, pain seeming to stretch me from the inside. I was pregnant with it, labor that never ended, just ebbed. I had to stop traveling, to spend all my time and money trying to feel alive again—referrals, appointments, inconclusive results, more referrals, bills. Stern calls came from receptionists who had once seemed so kind—when would I pay, how would I pay, did I realize that missing payments came with fines? And even more calls came from debt collectors, three or four of them. They asked if I knew what I owed or they told me what I owed, more, often much more, than I thought. They told me that contrary to what some believe, it was possible to be jailed for one’s debts. I said I found that surprising and they told me not to be so surprised. It’s theft, a form of theft, one of them said, to which I said nothing. And didn’t I worry about my credit score, planning for the future, home ownership, retirement, providing for my family, and I said, quickly and not kindly, No, I didn’t think of that, I never thought of that.

Well, maybe you should, he said.

I sometimes wondered why I even answered the phone, but I guess I always had the hope that it would be someone else, some other way of life calling for me. One of the collectors spoke so fast that when I listened to him, the back of my head seemed to emanate heat through my hair, and another spoke so slow and softly I felt I was sinking or drowning, that the air had become thicker around me and would take me down if I kept breathing.

It felt possible—though I know this is absurd—that the use of my own body, the only thing I really owned, had somehow been repossessed.

For a while Chandra’s constant care may have been all that stood between me and the total loss of my mind or life, and looking back at that year—when I’d wake up most nights hardly able to breathe, lying there for hours, mouth hanging open like a gargoyle—well, I don’t want to think about what I would have become if she hadn’t been there for me, stopping me from falling out of myself. (I don’t mean I wanted to kill myself—I’ve never had that kind of nerve—but sometimes the pain was so unfathomable and large that I wondered if I might, unintentionally, be killed by myself.)

When Chandra suggested PAKing for all the pain, and when PAKing necessitated getting a second job, I was desperate—ready to do anything for relief, no matter how expensive or ridiculous it seemed. She’d become an expert on illness and wellness, on traveling the distance between these places. Two years earlier, standing on a street corner, she’d been violently clipped by a city bus and had since been living on the settlement, devoting her time to healing herself, completely, of everything: the broken leg, twisted wrist, busted face, fear of street curbs—and the preexisting stuff—anxiety, caffeine dependence, pollen allergies, self-diagnosed chronic candida, disillusionment, thwarted intuition, commitment issues, trust issues, all her traumas and the habits they’d left. She had an herbalist, a Reiki master, a Rolfer, a speech therapist, a movement therapist, an art therapist, and a therapist.

Retreats and pilgrimages took her in and out of the city for a while, but she always sent postcards. I kept them in my purse and stared at the images of oceans and temples, hoping to get some residual calm while I sat in another waiting room, clutching the part of my body that was currently killing me. First she swore by ayahuasca, then it was all about sensory deprivation chambers or MDMA, wheatgrass, body alkalinization, or a certain guru. Every day, she said, a new layer of something was removed between herself and her self. She was fulfilled, she said, for the first time in her life, and though I envied her, a more cynical part of me couldn’t help but wonder, Filled with what?

When she was in town, she came over weekly with an arsenal of cures—herbs, powders, oils, bitter tinctures so powerful I had to take them by the drop. She burned sage, chanted, meditated, and sometimes—though this always embarrassed me—she’d hit a small gong or play this wooden flute. I never knew where to look or whether to suppress or release the impulse to laugh—even my embarrassment was embarrassing to me—and why couldn’t I just chant with her, be at peace with her stupid flute or that little gong? I was lucky she was there at all, that I knew at least one person who wanted to help me not because it was her job, but because she just wanted to see me healed.

The day she came back from Bali, she appeared at my door unannounced, all sleek and tan, draped in white linen.

I can tell you’re suffering, she said.

Out of anyone else’s mouth I’d be bothered by a statement standing in for a question, but she was always right about me. She walked through my apartment with an alluring, eerie calm, as if she were no longer interested in anything other than the slow purification of her body, other bodies, the whole world. She draped scarves over my toaster oven, alarm clock, and telephone, whispered mantras in each cardinal direction, spread a circular tapestry across the cracked hardwood in my living room, then settled into an elegant meditation posture. I tried to copy her, but my knees were too stiff and the twitching foot made it hard to keep still so I gave up and went full starfish on the floor.

I’d sold most of my furniture in a stoop sale to make rent, so lying on my floor doing nothing in particular was a habit I was all too familiar with. When she was here, I called it meditation, but I always fell half-asleep, my body exhausted by itself. I woke this time to Chandra standing over me. When she met my eyes, I noticed her face change a little, in ways I couldn’t exactly explain, but could feel. Our twelve years of friendship made silence soft and easy between us, though it wasn’t just the passage of time that had created this intimacy. It had somehow been there immediately, this mysterious closeness, as innate as an organ. While lying on the floor just then, the real weight of our love became palpable, pushed tears out of my head. She was all I had.

Are you still taking those medicinal fish oils?

I nodded. She crouched and wiped the tears out of my face, smoothed my hair.

And the geranium-hemp powder?

In porridge, like you told me.

Well, let’s try to get your weight up. She looked away from the little shred I was. My appetite had departed long ago; all soft parts of me followed.

First all my coworkers assumed I’d taken up yoga and commended me for it. They said I looked good, that I’d gotten into shape, asked for tips on motivation, healthy recipes. But soon they were saying I shouldn’t lose any more weight, that I was just right, that I must be working out too much, that I needed to build muscle, put on some weight, start eating more red meat or peanut butter or full-fat grass-fed dairy. Someone gravely recommended their thyroid specialist and Meg suggested I see a hypnotist to fix my eating disorder, but when I said I didn’t have an eating disorder, that I was just sick, she just said, I know.

When word got around of all my midday doctor appointments, everyone began speaking to me as if I had no body at all, everyone except Joe Nevins, who once interrupted our discussion about a missing invoice to say my face looked different, and when I asked what he meant by that, he wouldn’t or didn’t say.

Just different, he said, and went back to talking about the invoice.

I got used to it, in a way, being this sack of skin full of problems, because having a body doesn’t give you the right to have one that works correctly. Having a body doesn’t seem to give you any rights at all.

You’ll get over this, Chandra said while unpacking the new herbs and roots she’d brought for me. This pain is just a teacher for you.

This was how she saw the world, that everything went according to plan, that we subconsciously made our own problems, that every cancer had been invited, every injury earned. I wasn’t sure if I had the nerve to believe this, and if I did, if I really accepted I had asked for everything that had happened to me, I wasn’t sure I could ever forgive myself. But thinking this way seemed to calm her. If she deserved her pain, then she deserved all the good in her life, too.

I could have used a sense of acceptance like that. I hated the pains in my body, struggled against them and cursed them so much I’d even grown to fear good feelings—a settled stomach, a relaxed back, a full night’s sleep, or a whole day without crying. Even Chandra’s care grew to terrify me. What if it vanished? What if she just gave up and stopped coming by?

Her kindness, as if we shared blood or history, had always been hard to accept. I was just a person who appeared in her life at random, her assigned college roommate, a homeschooled semi-orphan from a barely literate state, but she still spent hours going over financial-aid and student-loan paperwork I didn’t understand. She lost sleep listening to me debate the merits and demerits of what I should major in—religion, philosophy, history, or English—though she’d made up her mind from the start: theater major, marketing minor. And most crucially, she decoded the world for me, explained all the pop culture I’d never heard of, and let me evade the answer to how I’d made it to eighteen without ever hearing of Michael Jackson. I’d blame the homeschooling or say, We were poor. (She seemed terrified by that word: poor.) Once I mentioned that I’d been raised, for a time, by my aunt, a detail that stopped her questions. People like her didn’t get raised by aunts.

*   *   *

After Chandra and I meditated, or, rather, after she meditated and I did whatever I did there on the floor, she served me maté in gourds and crudités with homemade allergen-free, vegan, sprouted pepita paste she had made, she said, while sending nourishing vibes to my astral body. It tasted grassy, felt thick in my throat.

Pepitas absorb toxins, she said, watching me eat as if watching someone parallel park. I sat there filling myself with pepitas, as the pepitas, I imagined, filled with my toxins. Chandra took the pulse from each of my wrists and examined my tongue. She closed her eyes for a little while, then told me her spirit guides had just advised her to advise me to complete a full PAK series, as soon as possible, with Ed, her PAKer. It had something to do with past lives or future ones, or perhaps even current lives that Ed and I were somehow living in another dimension. She spoke unflinchingly, as if her spirit guides were a real group of people, a flesh-and-blood committee.

PAKing changed my life, she said. Not just a door opening … but … a whole house of doors opening? It’s going to do that for you, too. My spirit guides have never been so clear. This is your future. You just have to take it.

I’d always been skeptical of Chandra’s reports from her spirit guides, as they always seemed to have these plans for her that she couldn’t explain to me yet. She’d once told me they were preparing her for incalculable fame and financial wealth, that her accident was part of a strengthening regimen for this future greatness, that she was going to eventually have her own talk

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  • (4/5)
    So I only picked this up because I was seeing it everywhere. That usually doesn't pay off for me, but every so often it does, and reinforces the whole futile exercise. This book is odd and also brilliant. There's so much going on that it shouldn't work, but Catherine Lacey is so sure-footed that every bit of The Answers fits together in ways that, days after finishing it, I still don't fully understand.Mary Parsons is a young woman who has very few friends. One, really; her college roommate Chandra. She was raised by very religious parents living off the grid in the woods. She broke free and managed to get through college with her roommate's and her aunt's support. Then her health problems began. Chronic pain and inexplicable symptoms have put her deeply in debt as doctors continue to order expensive tests and procedures. Chandra suggests an offbeat, new agey procedure called PAKing and Mary jumps on it, desperate for any hope. And it works. But she has to take a second job in order to pay for it, which is where the book starts to get weird. See? So many plot lines. Each sufficient for a book all on its own, but here, somehow, all those plot elements add up to just the right amount of stuff going on. This is an accomplished novel, with complex character studies, interesting things to say about popular culture, and a perfectly paced plot, despite the quantity of things going on.
  • (5/5)
    The Answers, from Catherine Lacey, has turned into one of the more difficult books I have tried to review. I plan to revisit the book in the near future after I have had a chance to think about it and, if it provides the provocative second reading I anticipate I will adjust my rating up to five stars. I could justify either four or five stars right now but want to let the ideas from the novel to synthesize with the thoughts they created in my mind and see what I get.The writing is wonderful, not necessarily beautiful but works beautifully with the story. This is one of those novels where the tone is able to add to the meaning of the words themselves.There are many uncomfortable moments, mostly the result of thinking through what has been said or shown and having a bad feeling about it. In this case I am talking about a bad feeling about the possibility that there might be some truth to what is there, or that there are really such people walking among us. In other words, the kind of bad feeling that comes from looking at relatively common things (illness, love, friendship, etc) from a different perspective that you haven't yet come to terms with.I would highly recommend this novel to readers who don't mind a slow methodical story that still manages to twist and turn. There is a lot to ponder here. In my case I want to think about the types of people chosen for the experiment and how their personalities did or did not fit their role. Are they what they themselves desire least? Do they create self-fulfilling prophecies based on assumptions from their past experiences? These questions apply to the vast majority of us to some degree but could there be an even stronger correlation? Anyway, I think each reader will take from this what most interests her and consider the implications.Reviewed from a copy made available through Goodreads First Reads.
  • (2/5)
    Good in snatches, but I thought the different parts failed to work together. I didn’t think it ever delivered on the concept, which is great, but will keep an eye out for future novels given how strong Lacey’s short stories are.